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For Foreign Workers in Israel, Haggadah’s Message Seems Relevant

April 2, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Raising plastic cups of wine and wishing each other happy Passover in Hebrew, foreign workers from countries as far-flung as Ghana and China sat down to a seder dinner in Israel.

Wearing their holiday finest — African batik tunics or shimmering skirts – – they smiled as they sampled matzah and charoset.

Many had spent the day cleaning Jewish homes in preparation for the holiday. Others earn their daily wage tending the children of wealthy Israeli families or caring for the elderly.

But on this night, a night different from all other nights, the group of 30 or so workers sat with Israelis at festive tables covered in gold-colored cloth and traditional Passover foods and read together, “This year we are slaves, next year free men.”

Wednesday’s model seder was sponsored by Kol Yehudi, a new coalition of secular and religious organizations that includes Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews.

Organizers said they hope to present the humanistic side of Judaism to give foreign workers a feeling of belonging in Israel, at a time when many feel hounded by officials seeking to deport them.

“We were all foreign workers in Egypt . . . and we need to learn how to treat strangers,” said Meir Yoffee, one of the organizers of the event, citing the Haggadah line, “We were strangers in the Land of Egypt.”

Many workers at the seder no longer have permits to work in Israel. They describe the fear they have felt since the government began a crackdown on foreign workers some two years ago, not extending work permits and deporting thousands of illegal workers back to their home countries.

Fearing police raids, many workers say they avoid going to the clubs and restaurants they once frequented. Others say they fear even to return to their apartments, and stay instead with friends or employers.

There are some 200,000 foreign workers in Israel, down from about 350,000 before the government began cracking down, citing high unemployment among Israeli citizens.

The foreign workers began arriving during the first intifada, which began in 1987, when occasional security closures in the West Bank and Gaza Strip prevented Palestinian laborers from reaching their jobs in Israel.

“We were slaves,” Gilad Kariv, the assistant rabbi at Tel Aviv’s Beit Daniel Reform synagogue, read from the Haggadah. Kariv led the Seder, explaining the significance of the foods — greens to symbolize spring, charoset to symbolize mortar.

“Today the slaves are here,” Diouf Aziz, sitting at one of the tables, responded in a low voice.

Aziz came to Israel from Senegal 13 years ago and speaks bitterly of the treatment foreign workers receive in Israel — the often low wages and poor living conditions now compounded by fears of deportation.

A 44-year-old woman from the Philippines, who has worked in Israel for seven years, said her future seems uncertain now that she no longer is here legally.

The petite woman with dark shoulder-length hair did not want to give her name, fearing police would track her down. She is supporting five children in the Philippines, including two she is putting through university.

“Any day I could be arrested and sent home, which would mean killing the hopes and dreams of my family,” she said.

She said she has loved her time in Israel, especially the lifestyle and the people, but now is wary of going out, shopping or doing anything public but her work.

Sharon Goriah, 47, came to Israel from Cape Town on a tour two years ago and never left. She works taking care of an Israeli couple’s toddler.

“There is something that keeps you here, something in the spirit of this place,” Goriah said, sitting back and looking at the Passover table. “I love Pesach.”

Behind her, a train of dancing workers and Israelis wound their way through the hall to the tunes of a Klezmer band.

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