By J. Zel Lurie
The Israel government’s Ministry of Interior has been a semi-independent Orthodox principality under both Labor and Likud cabinets for 60 years. David Ben Gurion’s mistake was to take them into his government to stave off his leftist opposition.
The Ministry, run by the Shas party with 11 percent of the Knesset, does what it pleases. It handles many aspects of the lives of the majority of the population including the population registry. It takes on many functions of other ministries such as housing for Orthodox from the Ministry of Housing and watching the borders together with customs and police.
It has also supplanted the Municipality of Jerusalem in ordering the bulldozing of Arab homes in East Jerusalem. It doesn’t consult other cabinet members before taking action, often leaving the prime minister to pick up the pieces.
In recent months the Ministry made news with the following actions:
1. Welcomed Vice President Joe Biden to Jerusalem with the announcement that it would build a new neighborhood in East Jerusalem called Ramat Shlomo. Biden was angry. Secretary of State Clinton was furious. In the resulting Brouhaha Prime minister Netanyahu was forced to extend the freeze on new construction in settlements to East Jerusalem.
2. The Ministry spat in the face of the Palestine Authority by refusing to allow the famous American iconoclast, Prof. Noam Chomsky, to cross Allenby Bridge en route to the Palestinian Bir Zeit University where he was to deliver two lectures. The Prime Minister’s office was forced to apologize. Prof. Chomsky was not entering Israel and he should not have been stopped at Allenby Bridge said Mark Regev, the government spokesman.
Prof. Chomsky delivered his lectures by video, He then dissipated much of the outrage in academic circles by calling on Israel’s active enemy, the Hezbollah chief in Lebanon.
3. Declared war on the children of illegal foreign workers. Minister of Interior Eli Yishai ordered them separated from their parents and deported to their native lands. This was too much for the Israeli public and Minister Yishai agreed to postpone action until the end of the school year.
I had my own run in with the Ministry some 30 years ago. I rescued a young British girl, who had been living illegally in Rosh Pina for five years, from the clutches of the Ministry.
All of the Rosh Pina officials were her friends. The Rosh Pina rabbi sponsored her for conversion to Judaism. Strangely the ministry refused. They were on a campaign to rid the country of goyim who had overstayed their visas. The Chief of Police told her: “I’ve received an order to pick you up. Please go hide. Get out of my jurisdiction.”
She moved in with mutual friends in a nearby village and that is where I found her.
“For five years I have been living as a Jew in Rosh Pina,” she told me. “I celebrated all the Jewish holidays. Now I want to convert and they won’t let me.”
I figured that I could use my press connections to help her. Telling her story might shame the Ministry to reverse course. I was right.
The novelist Yoram Kaniuk was writing a column for Maariv. I asked him to write a column about her. But first he had to get the Ministry’s side of the story.
As soon as the Ministry heard that the press was interested they decided to admit her to a religious kibbutz to study for conversion. Kaniuk never wrote a column.
Thirty years later I had dinner with her. She is now Jeanette Cohen, married to a British immigrant. She is in charge of security for the kibbutz of Amiad and she is a volunteer border cop that patrols the Northern frontier. A son is in the Army. Altogether a model citizen.
Today there are over a thousand children of illegal foreign workers. They are registered in government schools and so are easier to deal with than their parents. Minister Eli Yishai devised the devious plan to deport the children and he hoped the parents would follow.
The brutality of attacking children and separating families aroused the press and public. Yishai backtracked. He agreed to wait until the end of the school year and he appointed an interministerial committee to recommend future action.
Etta Prince-Gibson, editor of the Jerusalem Report, tells the heart-breaking story of one child whom she calls Kimberly.
Kimberly was born in Tel Aviv 15 years ago to a young black maid from Ghana who got herself pregnant. Kimberly’s native language is Hebrew. She has never been to Ghana. On the basis of her excellent grades she was admitted to a prestigious Tel Aviv high school.
She is active in the scouts. She is a prominent member of a scout unit that will travel to Europe this summer. Kimberly will have to stay home. She has no passport. She told Prince-Gibson:
“A few weeks ago we celebrated Passover in the school. It symbolizes freedom, liberty for everyone. Everyone is happy that we have a Jewish state, a homeland. But why can’t I be a part of it?”
Jeannette Cohen succeeded to become a part of it with my help. Who will help Kimberly?
Contrasting with the Ministry of Interior is the Tel Aviv Municipality which believes that Israel needed the foreign workers for health care, farm work and construction. They may have overstayed their Ministry of Interior visas but they are now part of Tel Aviv’s multicultural society.
Under the heading: “Through Books, Tel Aviv Offers Welcoming Island to Illegal Workers Who Share the City” the Forward of June 4th tells the story of the library opened for foreigners in Levinsky Park in South Tel Aviv where most of the illegal workers have congregated.
The library was the initiative of an artists cooperative named ArtTeam. It was welcomed by the Tel Aviv Municipality which provided the space in the park and $6,500 for operating expenses. Opened in October, it has 4,000 books in many languages on the shelves and 2,000 more still in boxes. Most were flown into Israel free by El Al. Recently books in Hebrew were added because the children were demanding them. The Forward reporter found children from Nepal, the Philippines and Ghana chattering in Hebrew. All of them, like Kimberly, had been born in Tel Aviv.
The volunteer librarians can’t understand the titles of many of the books on the shelves. Recently, the Forward relates, one of the librarians found by chance that she was handling the Nepalese translation of Mein Kampf, which had been included in the shipment from Kathmandu. Hitler’s anti-Semitic tract was quickly expunged.
The struggle continues. The Hebrew speaking children at the library in Levinsky Park are still under the threat of deportation by the Ministry of Interior.