By Alissa Brook and Tina Lee
There are nine party lists running in Monday’s election for the 23rd Knesset of Israel. Aside from the two parties currently facing off in the lead, Likud and Kahol Lavan, there are seven other parties divided not only by issues and political leaning, but also by ethnic identity and faith.
Migration plays a role in these elections, but not in the way it features in many other countries. For one, there is entirely different terminology used, mainly describing the fact that immigration is very much desired and encouraged for one group of people (Jewish people and their descendants or “Olim”) and somewhat discouraged for other groups by a majority of parties. Prior to the party analysis, we have a glossary to help understand some of the terminology special to Israel.
Another difficulty in determining the parties’ stances on migration and asylum is that several of them have not published party programs or manifestos in many years. One could argue that this is a reflection of how Israeli politics is driven in some ways by personality and identity more than detailed policy positions- but the same is true for numerous countries.
Nevertheless, we have made an effort to glean what we can and divide the stances of the different parties when possible based on their perspectives on 1) aliyah and immigration 2) asylum or “infiltrators” and 3) other relevant social policies that may impact migrants.
Aliyah: Jewish immigration to Israel.
Ashkenasim/ Ashkenazim: Jews who originate from Eastern and Western Europe. Since the big wave of ‘Russian’ Aliyah in the 1990s the term no longer includes people from the former USSR. They are their own category.
Deposit Law: A law requiring that employers of workers who came to Israel on a conditional or workers’ visa deposit 20% of the employee’s base salary into a separate bank account that cannot be accessed by the employee until they leave Israel.
Halacha/ Halakha: A guide for Jewish religious practices and beliefs; since the religious practices are mostly incorporated into daily life, the Halacha actually guides the day-to-day life of a religious Jew.
Haredi, Haredim: Orthodox Jews. There are different degrees of Haredism, depending on how closely the person sticks to the Halacha. The ultra-Orthodox adhere to it strictly.
Holot: a detention camp for African refugees and asylum seekers (referred to in some laws as ‘infiltrators’) who enter Israel through the Egyptian border of the Sinai desert. Closed down in 2018.
Infiltrator: Under the Infiltration law of 1954, anyone entering Israel illegally was deemed an “infiltrator” and subjected to harsh punishments. The original law was aimed at Palestinians. Five decades later, when African migrants from Sudan and Eritrea began to enter Israel illegally through the Egyptian border of the Sinai desert, the same law was revived as a legal instrument against them. Now the term is used (often misleadingly and with racist undertones) to refer to people seeking asylum, irregular migrants, or non-Jewish residents of African origin.
Law of Return: Law of 1950 (amended in 1970) stating the ethnic citizenship principle of Israel, namely that Jews have an automatic right to residency and citizenship in the state. The Law of Return includes spouses and children of Jews in its ambit. In this way, the Law somewhat contradicts the Halakha: according to Halakha, a Jew is only a person born to a Jewish mother. The Law of Return makes no such distinction.
Mizrahim: Descendants of Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa. French Jews, for example, are mainly Mizrahim. Although France is a Western country, the Jews in it originate mainly from its former colonies.
Olim: Jewish immigrants and their families, pl.
Sephardim/ Sephardic: the older word for Mizrahim, referring to Jews who originated in Spain (descendants of those expelled in the 15th century).
Coalition partner: Yamina
Neo-Liberal/ Center-Right party Likud has been the ruling party in Israel since 1977, with some breaks in between. Since Benjamin Netanyahu has ascended to leadership, the party has changed its character from centrist to right and from secular-traditionalist to traditionalist-religious. There is no current party manifesto or program, since Netanyahu opposes it, saying that a party should be judged on the basis of its performance.
It’s worth noting that Netanyahu himself has been indicted on counts of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in connection with three cases and has failed to receive immunity from the Knesset. This background informs some of the program of the current major opposition coalition, Kahol Lavan.
On non-Aliyah immigration, Likud has taken an increasingly hard line. In January 2010, Netanyahu gave a speech in which he warned that Israel was becoming a “foreign worker state” rather than a Jewish state and said he was “devising a policy that will put a barrier to the infiltration from Africa to Israel.” He suggested that other sectors of the Israeli population would enter the workforce, promising “There will be strict legislation against employers who employ and bring foreign workers into the country illegally.”
However, in recent years there has been a growing labour shortage that has been worsened by the ongoing political standstill. According to Israel’s Manufacturing Association, there is a shortfall of circa 10,000 workers in manufacturing. An agreement reached in 2018 to bring in an additional 2,000 workers has yet to be implemented and awaits a stable government.
In the meantime, the coalition government led by Likud has indeed enacted legislation making lives of foreign workers more difficult, most prominently the “Deposit Law”, which requires employers to stash 20% of worker earnings in escrow that they cannot access until they exit Israel. This is obviously meant to encourage workers to leave, and punish them financially until they do so.
Members of Likud, as other parties, repeatedly refer to people seeking asylum as well as people migrating irregularly with the militaristic term “infiltrators.” Preventing the entry of so-called “infiltrators” and enforcing the deportation of those who had already entered is one of the central goals of the Ministry of Interior.
The government has, for years, deported thousands of people who are seeking asylum from Africa as part of a scheme that opposition members accurately describe as violating the 1951 Refugee Convention, of which Israel is a signatory.
In 2018, Netanyahu signed an agreement with the UNHCR, according to which Israel would absorb some 16,000 people, primarily people from Sudan and Eritrea seeking asylum, while Western states would absorb a similar number. Netanyahu then backed away from the agreement mainly due to pressure from his voter base on social media and said that he would continue to “act resolutely to remove the infiltrators”.
Members of the party in the Knesset have repeatedly conflated people seeking asylum with people illegally present in Israel, migrant workers and “infiltrators”.
Coalition partner: Meretz- Labour – Gesher
Kahol Lavan is a centrist, liberal secular joint list combining three smaller parties led by former military chief Benny Gantz (pictured), center-right former defense minister Moshe Yaalon and center-left former finance minister Yair Lapid, essentially a merging between center right, center and center-left.
Known on the streets as the “not-Bibi” party, Kahol Lavan seems largely focused on countering Netanyahu and the dominance of Likud, and this can be seen in some of the central tenets of their platform including: introducing prime ministerial term limits, barring indicted politicians from serving in the Knesset, amending the Nation-State Law to include Israeli minorities, and re-entering negotiations with the Palestinian Authority for a peace agreement. Apart from these differences, their policies do not differ radically from those of Likud, or at least what Likud was like prior to its rightward shift.
Their 2020 platform touches on issues of immigration and integration, aside from an overall focus on corruption.
Aaliyah- Based Immigration
In respect to Jewish immigration, Kahol Lavan has a number of positions designed to welcome them and ease their entry into Israeli society. Kahol Lavan make promises that particularly target Ethiopian Olim, including that they will establish a committee at the Knesset to tackle racist discrimination against Ethiopian Jews and advance their integration into public institutions and the media.
For Olim more generally, Kahol Lavan further promises to ensure their priority for public housing, ease their integration into the work market vis a vis licensing exams, and advocate “welcoming conversion procedures” for Olim not yet recognized as Jews.
Regarding the deportation of female workers and their children, Kahol Lavan told Ynet, “hunting down and deporting immigrant children and their parents is a grave moral injustice and harms Israel’s international reputation”. It’s unclear how this view translates into policy if the party comes to power.
Asylum or Infiltration
Kahol Lavan confirms that it is in Israel’s interest to prevent illegal immigration and infiltration. However, they would also adopt the outline achieved with the UN (absorbing 16,000 refugees in Israel while at the same time Western countries absorbing a similar number) that was revoked by Netanyahu in 2018. They would additionally push for individual examination of asylum cases – something that has not been done to date and is required by international law.
Kahol Lavan also addresses the hot-button issue of southern Tel Aviv neighborhoods, where there is a high concentration of people who migrated to Israel. They pledge to disseminate people who immigrated across the country “instead of burdening the residents of southern Tel Aviv”.
They also say they will provide education and employment opportunities and services as incentive for new residents not to base themselves in a number of restricted areas, as is currently the case.
Finally, they will design and execute a national plan for the reconstruction of southern Tel Aviv neighborhoods (“destroyed” by “infiltrators”).
Coalition partner: Likud
Yamina is a joint list of three religious right-wing parties. Despite joining together, each of the three parties maintains its separate platform and unique party character.
- The new right is the largest faction on the list. It represents the liberal secular-traditional (light-religious) right. Its chairman Naftali Bennett (pictured) heads Yamina.
- The Jewish home represents religious Zionism (i.e settlers on the Palestinian territories and their supporters). Former member Ayelet Shaked is now chairperson of New Right.
- The National Union/ ‘Revival’ represents hawkish religious Zionism and the Zionist-Haredim. Its chairperson is Bezalel Smotrich.
The three are joined in agreement on several main principles: Their view on the historical continuity of Israel as a Jewish state, based on the Biblical principle ‘ the Land of Israel as promised in the Old Testament is indivisible’. In addition, their support for expanding settlements into the Palestinian territories and any other areas they consider historically Israel, and their categorical opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian State.
They take pride in being ‘the only list opposing the establishment of a Palestinian state and any withdrawal from the territories of the Land of Israel’.
Aliyah and Immigration
The stated aim of Yamina is to implement policies to advance and welcome Aliyah by removing any unnecessary obstacles, and “to prevent illegal settling of labour migrants alongside abuse of family reunification policies.” It’s unclear from this statement just who is abusing family reunification policies, since non-Olim family reunification is somewhat difficult.
At the same time, Yamina also takes a stand against discrimination faced by Ethiopian Olim. Ayelet Shaked, chairperson of The New Right (one of the three parties incorporated in Yamina) and the former minister of justice, established a government unit to coordinate the fight against racism. In 2016 Shaked appointed two female judges and one male judge of Ethiopian ethnicity.
Labour Migration and Infiltration
In the view of Yamina, the overwhelming majority of applications for asylum are false, since some of the people seeking asylum traveled through several countries to arrive in Israel. Hence people seeking asylum are portrayed by them as labour migrants (despite the fact that people seeking asylum are generally not granted a work permit) and infiltrators.
They promise to advance deportation policies and prevent further settlement of migrant workers. They would enforce and upgrade the Deposit Law (see Glossary and Likud section.)
Ayelet Shaked called on Twitter for canceling obligatory pensions for foreign agriculture workers: “A foreign worker earns at least 5 times what they earn in their country of origin. Israeli farmers are collapsing under the burden of their employment. We will work towards cancelling mandatory pensions for foreign workers”. (19.2.20)
Yamina‘s platform states, “Israel would never deport a person to a place where their life is in danger, but it has no obligation to absorb infiltrators who entered state territory in violation of the law.” In their view, if people have traveled through several countries to arrive in Israel than they automatically forfeit any asylum claim.
They have pledged to re-enact the ‘Prevention of Infiltration Law’, which has been repealed three times in the High Court, along with a cessation clause that will ensure it will not be repealed again. The repealed 2013 version of the law equates people migrating from Africa with an original 1954 law preventing entry of Palestinian refugees on grounds of preventing terrorism, and allowed for immediate deportation.
They oppose the agreement reached then backed out of by Netanyahu with UNHCR (see above), stating: “The agreement requires Israel to absorb thousands of illegal infiltrators in exchange for a questionable UN commitment. Absorption of infiltrators will once again make Israel a hot spot for potential infiltrators. We are confident that with determined and effective work, we can achieve better results than the UN outline“.
Joint (Arab) List
The Joint List, led by Ayman Odeh, brings together a diverse set of political priorities, from feminist to social justice and more, but members share the following joint demands, enumerated in their platform:
- “Israel should end the occupation of all Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese territories occupied in 1967, dismantle all settlements and the racial segregation fence, and free all political prisoners.
- Establish an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as capital
- Obtain a just solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees, which will guarantee their Right of Return according to UN Resolution 194
- Strive for a just peace that would rely on international agreements.”
Regarding the deportation of mothers who migrated to Israel years ago and their Israel-born children, the Joint List commented: “The criminal deportation of the children of foreign workers who grew up in Israel should be stopped”. The law should be amended so that every child born in Israel automatically receives Israeli citizenship, regardless of the legal status of their parents.”
The Joint List is the only party that mentions the rights of Palestinian workers in Israel. They call for their rights as employees (including worker’s injury compensation) to be guaranteed and the practice of employing them through illegal intermediaries to cease.
In addition, the Joint List stands for the principals that migrant workers, Palestinian workers and refugees employed in Israel should not be deported. Instead, they should be protected from exploitation and receive equal labour rights, working conditions and wages as other workers in Israel.
The Joint List calls for regulating the status of asylum seekers living in Israel and granting them refugee rights. “Instead of pushing them to the neighbourhoods of southern Tel Aviv and other disadvantaged areas, in a way that hurts both them and the local population, their asylum applications should be reviewed, taken care of and deportation should be stopped”.
Odeh supported the agreement reached/ abandoned with the UN by Netanyahu (absorption of 16,000 refugees in Israel at the same time as receiving a similar number in Western countries).
Israel Beitenu (IB)
Israel Our Home
Israel Beitenu represents the secular right, focusing on ‘security’ and particularly, but not exclusively, representing Russian-speaking voters. Party leader Avigdor Lieberman exercises tight control over the party and is heavily associated with its policy direction. The party advises authoritarian measures to enhance security, such as the death penalty for all terrorists.
On the other hand, the party differs from other right-wing parties in that it supports a territorial partition of Israel, whereby Israel would cut off Arab-Israeli areas and transfer them to a future Palestinian state.
Additionally, the party demands a secular stance for the government, separating religion from politics. This can sharply set it off from other parties, particularly their stance that Haredi men should be recruited to the military.
IB focuses on the Russian-speaking Aliyah, emphasizing the financial distress of the Olim and advocating for their rights to housing and pensions. The party draws a direct connection between Aliyah, security and economy. According to this argument, Aliyah significantly alters the demographic balance of Israel and promotes economic growth by bringing in skilled workers the country did not have to pay to train.
Asylum or Infiltrators
No official agenda on the issue is available, but Lieberman echoes others who conflate people seeking asylum with other types of people migrating to Israel, “These are infiltrators and not refugees. Firm implementation must be enforced on the one hand and incentives should be given to those who leave, on the other.”
As Foreign Minister (2009-2012, 2013-2015) Lieberman acted to expel Sudanese asylum seekers and as Defense minister (2016-2018) he banned the humanitarian volunteer activities of IDF soldiers with refugee children.
Lieberman also supports the ‘Deposit Law’.
Labour- Gesher- Meretz
Coalition partner: Kahol Lavan
Meretz-Labour-Gesher (MLG) is a joint list and rather loose alliance agreed to by Amir Peretz (Labor chairman), Orly Levy (Gesher leader) and Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz chairman) in January 2020 in response to poor results in the prior 2019 elections, when Labour and Gesher ran together and Meretz ran under another joint list, the Democratic Union. Their stances on migration are best seen in their recent platforms from 2019.
Left-wing party Meretz calls for a two-state solution, for security but also for the sake of Israel’s Jewish identity. They are socially liberal and advocate secularization of society, government and public space.
They take a strong stance against racism and want to replace the Nationality Bill with an Equality Law.
Meretz supports the granting of work permits to migrant workers on a personal basis, subject to a bilateral agreement between governments and not through human resources companies that can be exploitative. They call for abolishing the institution of immigration police and for an expansion of the Labour Law Enforcement Unit, which will, inter alia, ensure equal working conditions for immigrants.
They call for migrant workers to receive temporary residence permits (as opposed to worker visas). Children of migrant workers who were born in Israel or lived there for five years or more will be granted permanent residence and will later be able to obtain Israeli citizenship.
Asylum Seekers/ ‘Infiltrators’ (They use both terms together)
Meretz would work to abolish the deportation and incarceration policy of asylum seekers and prevent the reopening of prison/ detention facilities, such as Holot (see Glossary)
According to them, “the persecution policy chosen by the extremist government of Netanyahu, which denies basic work permits and rights to asylum seekers and infiltrators, has resulted in the fact that the southern neighborhoods of Tel Aviv are paying the price.”
Instead, Meretz calls for providing work permits to people seeking asylum during the period that their applications are pending, and promoting a form of “social residency”, allowing them to access welfare and health services.
Labour-Gesher emphasizes a peaceful and just society, advocating dialogue with moderate Arab states in the region and with the Palestinian population. According to their platform, racism is the greatest threat to the resilience of Israeli society.
Labour Migrants and Asylum Seekers
Labour-Gesher proposes a law for the treatment of asylum seekers and for the reconstruction of southern Tel Aviv.
They “believe that Israel has a young and strong population that can work and contribute to the state” (meaning Labour Migrants and Asylum Seekers), “but instead of allowing them to live here with dignity, the government is making a problem out of them“.
They advocate a two-phase plan:
- The first phase would establish an administration for the reconstruction of southern Tel Aviv, which will coordinate with all of the relevant ministries.
- The second phase would examine the status of people who have migrated or sought aslyum in Israel and then move them across the country according to their status, abilities and skills, as well as workforce needs.
- The goal is to enable them to work with dignity and receive state health insurance.
Orly Levy, Chairperson of Gesher, stated, “Our position on this issue is very simple: all illegal immigrants in Israel must be examined according to the UN definition of refugeeism. Whoever does not fulfill the criteria will be returned to their country of origin”.
The combined list has a strong policy on Aliyah, focusing on the Ethiopian community.
The party proposes a committee of inquiry to investigate the failures in the absorption of Ethiopian Olem, halting police brutality against them, ending the racism they face in the education system, designating a fund for their integration in High-tech, establishing heritage centers and bringing over the rest of the Jewish community in Ethiopia.
United Torah Judaism
Coalition Partner: Shas
Yahudat HaTorah is a joint list of two ultra-orthodox parties, Agudat Israel and Degel HaTorah, that have run together since 1992. The party’s platform was last published in 2002.
The party is religiously ultra-orthodox and is primarily animated by protection of rights for Ashkenazi Haredi, including their exemption from military service and access to independent education. Unlike other parties, they do not have a strong stance on security and defense, but often end up aligned with Conservative parties willing to make them concessions.
Yahudat HaTorah welcomes and promotes Aliyah from all countries, poor and rich, specifically encouraging religious tourism and Aliyah of religious youth.
The party announced that due to its humanistic values it would support any initiative to protect the human rights of people seeking asylum, as long as it’s legal. At the same time, the party would stand behind any governmental decisions on the matter.
In the past (2012)Yaakov Litzman, head of the party and minister of health, claimed that African immigrants are a burden on the economy, as their health needs cost the state approximately 50 million shekels annually.
Their stance regarding refugees at the moment: “return them to their countries of origin but without risking their lives”.
Coalition partner: United Torah Judaism
Like United Torah Judaism is for Ashkenazi, Shas represents Sephardic Haredi Jews. Religiously ultra-orthodox, they believe the Jewish nature of the Israeli state should dominate, however they also seek peace and security with ‘Arab neighbors’ and want to ‘protect every soul in Israel.’ When they formed in 1984 they made explicit their aim “to repair the alleged continued economic and social discrimination against the Sephardic population of Israel”. As they state in their platform, “Shas advocates tolerance for the [‘different’] among the sectors,” and “human life is more important than territories“.
In 2019-20 Shas had not responded to questions on immigration issues, although the party chairman Aryeh Deri is the Minister of the Interior (2016-now), responsible for implementing the immigration policy in Israel.
Their last published platform in 2007 outlines some general principles.
Shas marks aliyah as a top priority for a strong Israel.
While Shas advocates a significant reduction in foreign workers, they also believe that people who entered Israel legally should have their rights protected.
Asylum seekers/ ‘infiltrators’:
In 2017 Netanyahu assigned Deri (as minister of interior) to ‘prevent further entries of infiltrators into Israel and precipitate the removal of the ones who had already entered’.
Nevertheless, the party believes Israel should give aid to ‘genuine refugees’ according to the Geneva convention and the Jewish moral obligation to help in face of life danger.
In 2018 Deri was a partner in the agreement signed between Israel and the UNHCR, according to which Israel was to receive 16,000 refugees into its territory (as noted above, quickly revoked).
Jewish Force/ Power
Far-Right Otzma is a descendent of a previously outlawed extremist party, Kach. The party is religious hardline, racist and ultra-nationalist, calling for a one-state solution with all territories united under unconditional Jewish rule and cancellation of the Oslo accords. The leader of the party, Itamar Ben-Gvi (pictured), is a lawyer famous for representing a number of people accused of terrorism and hate crimes. He himself was convicted of incitement for holding up signs reading, among other things, “Expel the Arab Enemy” at a rally in 2007. More recently he has clarified that he means only “disloyal” Arabs should be expelled from Israel.
Otzma calls for a “vigorous emergency operation” to bring diaspora Jews to Israel in order to shift demographics and “combat the disease of assimilation.”
Otzma calls for a national authority to be established to return all “enemies of Israel” to their countries of origin. This would include people who have migrated unlawfully as well as citizens if necessary “to preserve the Jewish character of the state.”
Outside of their platform, the public face of the party as exhibited by Chairperson Michael Ben-Ari is particularly hostile towards African migrants, accusing them variously of theft, harassment of women and carrying diseases.
Sources and Further Reading:
Full text: AG’s announcement of decision to indict Prime Minister Netanyahu. Times of Israel (Nov. 2019)
Netanyahu: We Will Not be Foreign Workers State Globes.co.il (2010)
“Cancer in Our Body” On Racial Incitement, Discrimination and Hate Crimes against African Asylum Seekers in Israel. [PDF] Hotline for Migrant Workers (2012)
Report on Citizenship Law: Israel[PDF] Yossi Harpaz and Ben Herzog, European University Institute (2018)
Signatories to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. United Nations Treaty Service.
Deportation, Asylum and Citizenship: The Parties’ Programs on Immigration, Infiltration and Asylum Seekers. Organization of Refugee Assistance and Asylum Seekers in Israel (RA) (2019)
Michael Ben Ari, Bugbear of the Left Haaretz (2013)