26 Feb 2005
Last Monday’s Guardian carried a shocking feature on the plight of migrant workers in Israel, where tens of thousands of foreigners — from China, South-East Asia and Eastern Europe — are exploited wholesale as slave labour by employers, forced to live in squalor, regularly demonised in the press, and deported at a whim.
This is a familiar story, since the same has been happening here in Ireland — to migrants from China, from Africa and the former Soviet states — over the last number of years, albeit on a less drastic scale.
It’s not an oft-considered notion that Ireland and Israel share many traits: both are small nations identified with particular religious groups; both have a history of oppression and conflict over territory and beliefs, and a common struggle for identity.
One big difference, however, is that we Irish are — slowly, but surely — moving forward. We are finally beginning to embrace cultural diversity (as the recent nationwide celebration of the Chinese New Year typifies) without the paranoia of feeling that our indigenous culture is being threatened or overwhelmed — whereas in Israel it appears that both government and citizens alike are going backward, willing to reinforce a dangerous mindset of monoculturalism where outsiders are only welcomed if they can be exploited.
It might prove difficult to change such apparently defensive, insular (and possibly xenophobic) attitudes when horrific suicide bombings, such as the attack on a Tel Aviv nightclub only last night, are a regular occurrence — it’s a situation not entirely dissimilar to that of Northern Ireland of the ’70s and ’80s — but surely that should be an excuse to make things better, not maintain the status quo.
Your thoughts on this subject are welcome.