Text size

The case for naturalizing long-time foreign workers gained important support last week when Shlomo Avineri, Amnon Rubinstein and Ruth Gavison submitted a formal proposal to the government, calling on it to draft an immigration law. The report calls Israel "the last Western state with no immigration policy," and says the government lacks "vision and targets."

While these arguments are rationally compelling, they are likely to ring hollow with the xenophobic politicians whose support is needed to enact any such legislation. To them, the proposal's authors are telling the government to create an immigration policy, so we might be like the rest of the West, reminiscent of the elders of Israel telling the prophet Samuel, "Appoint a king for us, to govern us like all other nations" (1 Samuel 8:5).

Such politicians do not want Israel to be like the other nations. They fear that naturalizing non-Jews will dilute Israel's Jewish character and open the door to a future without a Jewish majority. Eli Yishai of Shas called the 2006 decision to naturalize approximately 900 children of foreign workers "the beginning of the end of the Jewish state," while the head of what was then the National Religious Party, MK Zevulun Orlev, said: "The decision to facilitate the naturalization of foreign workers' children is a populist step that will be regretted for generations."

Ironically, an immigration policy that allows for the naturalization of foreign workers who want to contribute to the Jewish state embodies the fulfillment of Herzlian Zionism. The evidence lies in Theodor Herzl's utopian novel "Altneuland" ("Old New Land").

In this novel, the founder of the Zionist movement tells the story of a political race between a young, forward-looking leader called David Littwak and a xenophobic nationalist known simply as Dr. Geyer. The president of the so-called New Society in Palestine, Herzl's version of a Jewish state, gives his blessing to Littwak, telling him, "My last word to the Jews will be: The stranger must be made to feel at home in our midst." Littwak takes those words - Herzl's words - to heart, encouraging his non-Jewish companion, a German aristocrat named Kingscourt, to join the New Society.

The primary requirements for joining this utopian Zionist society are buying into the idea of a Jewish homeland and being prepared to be a productive member of that society. The New Society of Herzl is filled with Jews, Greeks, Levantines, Armenians and Persians - all engaging in trade and residing together in the Land of Israel. Arabs, it almost goes without saying, are welcome members of the society, and in perhaps the biggest ironic twist, ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not embrace the Zionist vision are left on the outside. At the end of the novel, Kingscourt is welcomed into the New Society.

Just as non-Jews enriched Herzl's ideal society, foreign workers contribute to Israel. They certainly come here to be productive, and they play a vital economic role. They send their children to Hebrew-speaking kindergartens and schools, and their children grow up speaking Hebrew, celebrating Jewish holidays in public and singing "Hatikva," the national anthem.

For centuries, Jews hoped to be accepted as minorities in their adopted lands. As the nations of Europe granted them citizenship, they assimilated into their new societies and contributed without threatening the underlying character of those Christian nations. We now find ourselves with the roles reversed. If we embrace foreign workers and their families, we can look forward to the children of the immigrant generation becoming prominent members of our society, just as our ancestors did in Western nations.

Naturalizing foreign workers would be anything but the "beginning of the end of the Jewish state." Rather, the foreign workers would help preserve it. If one reframes the so-called "demographic war" not as one between Jews and Arabs, but as between supporters and opponents of a Jewish state, foreign workers fall on the Jewish side of the equation. And with no more mass waves of aliyah on the horizon, the main source of potential immigrants supporting the Jewish state is foreign workers.

While I am not comfortable relying on the "demographic threat" argument to advocate a policy that is morally compelling in and of itself, it is worth taking a cue from Herzl. He would have accepted a Jewish homeland anywhere because of the specter of anti-Semitism, but he adopted a Palestine-only policy to appeal to nationalist sentiments. He realized that sticking to rational arguments about relocating Jews in peril to any other land would fail to rally the key decision makers.

In the current debate, we need to understand the fears of these officials and their constituents so we can more effectively appeal to their sentiments and win their support for this important legislation. It may not be the Western thing to do, but it is the Herzlian thing to do.

Steven Klein is a former instructor of Zionist history and is currently an editor at Haaretz.