Archive | September, 2015

The Chinese are Coming!

19 Sep
chinese laborer

Chinese Laborer

The year’s 1973; I’m eighteen and it’s a late Saturday night and I’m returning home from a night of disco dancing with the gang.  I’m asleep all of four hours when on a very early Sunday morning my father pulls the summer sheets off my bed.  “Get up,” he says.  “We leave for work.”  At six in the morning, my eyes half-shut, I report to a construction site near Tel-Aviv.  Arabic is heard all around me.  I help my father mix cement, haul bricks and blocks up the apartment complex.  By noon several walls have gone up, by late afternoon I pack up my tools and walk home with my dad. This is how I spent my summer vacation, working, speaking nothing but Arabic with a bunch of Arab help from the Gaza Strip.

Fast forward to the 1990s, my dad’s near retirement but he’s still working full-time as a bricklayer, not with Arabs, but this time with Romanians.  Arabs are no longer welcome in Israel after a period of terrorist attacks.  Romanians by the thousands take their place.  They’re reliable, cheap, and do not carry bombs in their lunchbox.  And so begins Israel’s love affair with foreign labor.  Tens of thousands of Filipinos are employed here as caregivers to aging Israelis, thousands of Thai immigrants pick produce from fields.  Most Israelis don’t do menial labor.  My father belonged to a bygone era.  Today Israelis would rather work at high-tech jobs, medicine, military hardware, or develop the next killer-app for Silicone Valley. Getting one’s hands dirty in construction jobs is just that – dirty.

Chinese construction laborers in Israel

Chinese construction laborers in Israel

And so begins the next round of immigrant labor to Israel, this time the Chinese.  Homes in Israel are notoriously expensive.  Americans on average have to work 60-70 months to buy a home. Europeans: 80.  Israelis: 140.  Why?  There are many reasons: Jewish immigrants and investors come to Israel in large numbers, adding to demand.  Majority of land is owned by the Israeli government which has a vested interest in keeping land values high so it can get its share of taxes.  To keep demand high, it doles out land gingerly.  High labor costs add to high cost of homes. Demand outstrips supply. Building projects remain idle for lack of laborers.  Jews don’t want to climb scaffolds, to pour concrete, to plaster.  Arabs from the West Bank are suspect.  What’s a developer to do?  Using their strong lobby, the developers recently petitioned the Israeli government to allow “importing” 30,000 Chinese.  They claim the Chinese earn less than Jews and Arabs, and therefore they can pass on the savings to home buyers. Prices will go down by 5%.

Arabs in Construction

Arabs in Construction

This entire plan smells like a week-old chow mein.  Judging from past “import” of foreign labor, there was no price reduction.  On the contrary, prices are still spiraling out of control.  Developers and contractors will pocket the savings and blame the higher prices on others.  Secondly, why do we need 30,000 Chinese?  It’s common knowledge that these poor immigrants pay hefty “transaction fees” to Chinese and Israeli brokers.  Before these Chinese men lift a single brick, they start out with a debt of thousands of dollars, a modern-day slavery.  Yet these Chinese men are willing to cough up the money just so they come and work.

But what about the Arabs?  According to figures, there are 37,000 Arabs who enter daily from the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) to work in Israel proper, and an estimated 13,000 who enter as undocumented laborers.  Unemployment in the West Bank is high.  If Israel is to put out the fire on its turbulent relations with the West Bank Arabs of late, is it not better off employing them?  Will bringing home a paycheck to their villages not help quell the Arabs’ festering anger toward Israel? It’s not my love of the Arabs that convinces me that this is the better solution, but the love of the Jews and what’s best for them/us.

These 50,000 Arab laborers are reliable; they leave their village homes at daybreak, go through security check-points manned by Israeli soldiers; they stand in congested lines for hours before being admitted in, and finally once inside Israel, they build homes for the Jews, return home late in the day to start the whole thing all over again the next day.  When asked on TV if they’re content, the answer is a resounding “yes!”  They earn Israeli Shekels with dignity, return home and feed and care for their families.  Are there bad apples in the bunch? Terrorist cells?  Very few.  The majority want nothing more than to work.  And if 30,000 Chinese are going to land here, what will it do to labor costs?  Arabs will be squeezed further.  They will not be able to provide.  Anger and frustrations will escalate.  One more brick in the wall that will lead to an uprising, an Intifada.  My disco days are long gone, but if the Chinese are allowed to enter and displace Arabs, we could all be dancing to a different tune.  And I didn’t read this in a fortune cookie.

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Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com/Maurice-Labi/e/B00A9H4XEI

or at BN.com

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/maurice-labi?store=allproducts&keyword=maurice+labi

 

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Almond Fields Forever

5 Sep
Galilee almond tree at full winter bloom

Almond tree at full winter bloom

Okay, the title of this post doesn’t have the same ring as the famous Beatles song, but here, in Galilee, almond fields are eternal.  Originally from China, almond trees made their way to the Mediterranean region.  At first the wild almond trees were poisonous and full of cyanide to ward off the leathery tongues of goats.  In time, man domesticated the tree, and the almonds, a cousin of the peach and cherry, became man’s best friend on the road.  In biblical times, during the great famine, Patriarch Jacob sent his sons to Egypt stocked with almonds.  During Roman times, horsemen and mercenaries lived on almonds as the ultimate Trail Mix.  When attending a wedding, guests showered the newlywed couple with almonds for good luck.

Liora at the controls

Liora at the controls

Recently I too was in luck.  It was mid-August, the height of the almond harvest in Galilee.  Liora, a third-generation woman farmer and friend of ours offered to give me a private tour of “the business.”  So I get in my car and drive thirty minutes to Kibbutz Geva to meet her.

The first thing I see are stretches of flat land extending in very direction.  At one end, there’s a makeshift camp covered with tarp. Under it, all-terrain vehicles are at the ready.  Several semi-trailer trucks appear, sending clouds of red dust into the air.  They’re loaded with un-shelled almonds.  Liora stands like General Patton and gives out orders into her two-way radio. The drivers inside the trucks come to a halt, swerve, and follow her every command.

Almonds drying in the sun

Almonds drying in the sun

She waves to me to come and join her under the tarp.  I obey.

“So this is where we scatter the almonds to dry,” she says and gestures in a sweeping motion.  “Tons and tons and tons of them.”  We step out from under the shade.  I cast a flat hand over my eyes and scan the endless rows of drying almonds in the sun.  I ask her a city-slicker question: “Why don’t you let the almonds dry at the foot of the trees where you shook them off the branches?”

Her face, brown from too much sun, caked with dust, becomes quizzical.  She declares the obvious: “What do you think, we live in your California, huh?  If I leave the almonds on the ground for more than one day, they’ll be gone the next!”  I help her out.  “Thieves,” I say.  Liora chuckles and says, “Definitely not goats.”

And so begins a massive month-long operation where tons of almonds are harvested at the source, loaded on containers that are loaded onto big trucks that drive to Kibbutz Geva.  There, the almonds in their shells are left to dry for days, tossed and re-tossed, collected into bins and delivered to the almond almonds 3mill just one kilometer away.  At the mill the millions of almonds are crushed, the shell extracted. Then they’re sorted by size, grade and quality by Italian-made machinery.  The shells ultimately will become feed for cattle.  The almonds will be packed and sold to a nuts merchant.  Israel’s almond fields are large but they’re dwarfed by California’s (100 times larger!); the world’s number 1 grower and exporter.

Reporting from Galilee

Reporting from Galilee

Liora and her husband Allon who’d taken me on an olive tour a couple of years ago make a good living off the land.  Unlike California’s Central Valley that relies on rainwater and sporadic drilling, the almond trees in Israel rely on delivered irrigation as well, making them less vulnerable to nature’s whims.  But there are other problems: pests, excessive heat, and the bees.  “Bees?” I ask Liora.  “I thought they’re the good guys that pollinate the blossoms.”  Liora speaks of the bees and the trees as if they were her wayward children, worthy of an occasional spanking. She says, “Almond trees are just dumb.  They’re stupid!  All fruit trees blossom in April.  Almonds do it in February, at the peak of winter.  Now you show me a bee that wants to freeze its butt off buzzing from one flower to the next?”

Homemade almond milk

Homemade almond milk

I nod, trying to imagine a swarm of bees with frozen butts.

Almonds grown in Israel meet most of the local demand.  The rest is imported from California. Whereas California almonds are smaller, rounder, Galilee almonds are longer, meatier, more crunchy. Israel sells almonds to Jordan through a land-bridge and from there to the rest of the Arab world.  A prince sitting on a bunch of pillows in the Emirates of the Persian Gulf could be sipping dark, strong tea and not know he’s munching on Israeli almonds.

At home, other than to add a splash to my morning coffee, I gave up on milk several years ago. Instead, we drink homemade almond milk.  Its nutrient value is high, it tastes good and it’s easier on the stomach.  If it was good enough for Jacob and the Romans, it’s good enough for me.

Enjoy.

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Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com/Maurice-Labi/e/B00A9H4XEI

or at BN.com

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/maurice-labi?store=allproducts&keyword=maurice+labi