Light Shines on Israel’s Invisibles

So where do Israelis usually look for answers when they are in trouble or face a midlife crisis? Some go abroad for a vacation in the Himalayas; others take a lover or drown themselves in drink. The main characters in two new Israeli films chose another path. They turn to Israel’s often-abused population of foreign workers.

For most Israelis, the foreign workforce is mostly invisible — except when cheap labor is needed. But in these films, the protagonists are not ultimately seeking to exploit; they are instead searching for a sort of personal redemption among the exploited.

In “Janem, Janem,” Aldi (Danny Rytenberg), a 40-year-old high school teacher, heads south to an enclave of foreign workers who reside in small, crowded hovels in the no-man’s land of the old Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. It is there among construction workers from Romania, Turkey and Russia that Aldi — without language, family and identity — finds true love and meaning for his life.

In the film “What a Wonderful Place,” ex-cop Franco (Israeli Oscar winner Uri Gavriel) has to work for a cruel and shady underground boss, but he finds kinship with an illegal Ukranian worker who teaches him to swim while he protects her from immigration officers.

Both films will screen in Los Angeles at the 21st annual Israel Film Festival.

The works call attention to the communities of foreign workers that rarely make front-page news in Israel. Events such as the Gaza withdrawal, terror and politics usually take precedence over critical social issues — or social time bombs, as some call the growing number of laborers from abroad.

Foreign workers were first brought into Israel in the 1980s as part of a solution to the security threat posed by some Arab workers from the occupied territories. Once the territories were closed and Arab workers stopped entering Israel, there was an urgent need for construction workers, caregivers, and field laborers — work that, for the most part, Jewish Israelis would not perform.

So the government issued work visas for eager workers from Third World countries, such as Romania, Turkey, the Philippines and Ghana, who were searching for better salaries. Once the gates opened, a flood of foreigners arrived, and thousands followed — illegally. Today, the number of foreign workers in Israel is estimated at 300,000 to 410,000, depending on which government branch you check. They estimate that about one-third of that number have no work visas and therefore reside illegally in Israel.

“Israel is second place, following Switzerland, in the extreme use of foreign workers in the workforce,” wrote Dr. Omer Moav, a senior member of the Social-Economic Institute at Tel-Aviv University, in an article in Yedioth Achronoth, the Israeli daily. “The whole public pays the price of low salaries that pull the average wage of citizens down, and the growing unemployment [that results] from cheap, imported workers.”

Nor are the imported workers faring well, said Einat Fishbein, an award-winning Israeli journalist who covered foreign workers extensively: “The only thing that maybe progressed — and some might say it is actually a setback — is that during [Ariel] Sharon’s period as prime minister, the police have chased and captured illegal workers more efficiently than before.”

Fishbein is unimpressed by the wave of fashionable feature and documentary films about foreign workers.

“I think it has recently become an easy escape from dealing with our own internal social problems,” she said. “It is like — ‘Hey, here are people who are easy to photograph, and they speak foreign languages. It’s trendy — lets make a movie out of it.'”

Haim Bouzaglo’s film, “Janem Janem,” is part of a trilogy that inspects current events, he said. The other two films are “Distortion,” about the emotional consequences of the intifada, which also will be screened at the festival, and “S’rak S’rak,” about the future assassination of an Israeli prime minister, yet to be produced.

The idea for “Janem Janem” came to him after strolling in the old Central Bus Station, between the pubs, bakeries and whorehouses — sometimes euphemistically called “health clubs.”

“It occurred to me that I am in la-la land,” said the veteran film director and TV producer.

“You can see horrible things there,” he told The Journal in a phone interview from his home in Israel. “I’m not talking only about the poverty and density of living, but also social oppression. For a while, the immigration police were closing churches because they were opened illegally, preventing the workers from practicing their religion.

“It’s almost as if we forgot how to behave,” he said, referring to Israeli society. “You know, according to the Torah, we should have welcomed foreign workers who serve us and do the jobs we are not inclined to do. In reality it doesn’t happen.”

Aldi is not a new character for Bouzaglo. He used him 20 years ago in his most celebrated film, “Fictitious Marriage.” In the narrative of that earlier film, Aldi left his cozy home to impersonate a laborer among a group of Palestinian workers.

“I decided to change the scenery this time to foreign workers, because for me, this is a closure,” Bouzaglo said. “This time around, Aldi finds camaraderie and caring from the foreign workers. These are qualities we were once proud to have as an Israeli society, before we became somewhat cold and detached like other Western countries.”

But Fishbein doesn’t buy it, saying, “In fact, I think it’s almost irresponsible and foolish to talk about camaraderie among foreign workers that way. There is very little brotherhood among foreign workers.

“We have to remember that we are talking about people who came here to earn some money to send back home to their families. They are trying to survive in very tough conditions and are certainly not trying to form a state of sorts. In fact, in some cases, you can even see them cooperating with the police against their illegal brothers.”

Both “Janem” and “What a Wonderful Place” depict scenes in which immigration police enter the workers’ premises for surprise searches and scenes of sexual abuse of women from Eastern Europe. But they differ in their style and their messages. While Bouzaglo describes the demise of the Israeli society both in his movie and interviews, Eyal Halfon’s film, “What a Wonderful Place,” relies on more subtle artistry.

Halfon brings foreign workers into Israeli homes, like Eddie (Ramon Bagatsing), a Philippine caretaker who keeps an eye on the elderly Mr. Aloni, while trying to find some intimate time to impregnate his wife. Bouzaglo does the opposite: He forces Israelis to look into the armpit of ghettos they have created.

In Bouzaglo’s film, Aldi is better off running away from his Israeli wife and life — a disturbing message. Halfon ends his movie in a more optimistic place. While some characters in “What a Wonderful Place” are indeed disgusting, like “The Boss” (Dvir Benedict), a pimp and violent rapist, others are soft-spoken and underdogs, like Zeltser, the overweight agriculturist who feels sorry for the prostitutes.

Halfon said he deliberately avoided uniformly depicting Israelis as crude and vicious.

“I don’t think we [the Israelis] are any worse than other [people],” he told the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, in an interview recently. “There is a very complicated and harsh reality here, and the people who live in it crush others, but also end up getting crushed as well.”

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