HAGAR Studies in Culture, Polity and Identities Vol.8 (1) 2008: 105-128
“We are the Jews of today”: Filipino domestic workers
in Israel and the language of diaspora
While the Jewish diaspora is generally treated as the ideal type of an imagined
global community, the notion of a Filipino labor migrant diaspora has arisen more
recently. As I will show, the analysis of “diaspora” as an emic discourse offers much
insight into the political and affective aspects of economic, social and cultural
dislocation within a global capitalist order. Based on ethnographic research on
Filipino domestic workers in Israel, this article focuses on migrants’ usage of the
language of diaspora, rather than discussing whether their historical experiences
justify their description as such. By declaring to Israeli policymakers and employers
that “We are the Jews of today,” Filipino domestic workers in Israel are not only
demonstrating their knowledge of and solidarity with Jewish history and suffering,
but—against the background of a migration regime that rigidly excludes non-Jews—
negotiate rights and belonging by appeals to pity and compassion, hereby claiming
As imagined communities that transcend the borders of the nation-state, diaspora
formations have been celebrated as performing vital social roles, being
“[d]eterritorialized, multilingual and capable of bridging the gap between global and
local tendencies” (Cohen, 1997:176). In his comprehensive introduction to Global
Diasporas, Robin Cohen even diagnoses a “diasporization” of the present age,
created by unprecedented migration flows at a time of cheap air fares, abundant
tools of mass communication and global service institutions (1997:175). In a similar
tone, James Clifford has identified diasporic formations as a potential source for the
subversion of nationality (1997:9) and analyzed the notion itself as a “master trope”
for contemporary identity politics (1997:266). More recently, the usage of diaspora
as an analytical concept has been criticized as perpetuating an “ethnic lens” in the
social sciences by defining the unit of study “as people who share an ancestry and a
We are the Jews of today
history of dispersal,” allegedly obscuring “the diversity of migrants’ relationships to
their place of settlement and to other localities around the world” (Glick-Schiller,
Çağlar and Gulbrandsen., 2006:613). Nonetheless, the fact that the notion of
diaspora is increasingly invoked by national or ethnic groups in order to describe
their own situation and feelings of exile, memory and desire calls for analysis. This
article focuses on one such group, namely the up to eight million Filipino migrants
who now form—together with Mexican citizens—the largest group of workers in
the global economy to be living outside of their country of origin (Weekley,
Drawing from ethnographic research in Israel, where Filipinos are engaged
mainly in domestic work and caregiving, I move from the arid definitional question
of whether Filipino overseas can indeed be said to form a (labor) diaspora, to
describing their diasporic discourses as political claims and affective appeals for
legal, social and cultural inclusion and belonging. As I will also show, Filipino
migrant domestic workers in Israel (and beyond) are often integrated into larger
transnational networks that transcend the borders of several nation-states, being
based on affective ties, practical requirements and common experiences of economic
dislocation, racial discrimination and legal, social and political exclusion from
Western citizenship. Given this background, Filipino discourse on the Filipino
diaspora both serves as a metaphor—drawing attention to the emotional pains and
sufferings of globalization and migration experiences—and functions as a political
strategy, mobilizing action to change the conditions from which these arise.
Filipino overseas workers in Israel and beyond
Filipina domestic workers in Israel belong to a growing mass of international female
migrants who move from the so-called Third World to the centers of global
capitalism in order to take up low-wage jobs within a highly gendered economy. The
Philippines today is one of the world’s largest exporters of temporary contract labor,
and Filipinos are living and working abroad in more than 160 countries of the
With approximately ten percent of the population residing abroad and
numerous households depending on the overseas material remittances of its
members, the economic, social and cultural impacts of mass migration on Philippine
social life can hardly be overestimated. As with other migrant-sending nation-state
economies (e.g., Mexico, Sri Lanka, Morocco), overseas employment has become a
major pillar of the Philippine economy.
In continuity with the colonial production
of Filipino migrants as a cheap labor force for the U.S., the post-colonial Philippines
has established an enormous number of state and non-state institutions that function
to control, manage and generally promote out-migration (Choy, 2003; Tyner, 2004).
Originally designed as a temporary measure, the Philippine labor export policy
adopted by the Marcos regime in the early 1970s turned into a permanent national
development strategy in the global economic recession in the 1980s, a process that
continues in slightly altered form up until today (Bello, 2004:11; Tyner, 2004).
Recently, Levitt and Glick-Schiller have described the Philippines as a “strategically
selective state” (2004:1023), which encourages emigrants to remain tied to their
home country while it seeks to maintain control over these ties. Nevertheless,
throughout recent years, the legal and political position of Filipino nationals and
citizens abroad has been strengthened by the state, mainly due to political pressure
and activism by its transborder citizens. Thus, since 2003, the Philippine state has
permitted dual citizenship and the right to vote in Philippine elections from abroad.
According to the Senate President, the signature of the Citizenship Retention Bill in
2003 (which granted these rights) served as an “affirmation to the age-old adage that
‘once a Filipino, always a Filipino’” (cited in Levitt and Glick-Schiller, 2004:1024).
Contributing to the global feminization of migration, Philippine migration
flows became increasingly feminized during the 1970s (Gonzales, 1998:42ff).
growing number of women have left the country to seek jobs, first in Philippine
urban centers (Eviota, 1992), then as “factory girls” in Taiwan and nurses in Saudi
Arabia, Western Europe and the U.S., and later as domestic helpers or caregivers in
practically every nation-state in the world. The expansion of global capitalism has
generated an international division of labor (Parreñas, 2005), within which the
Philippines have become an Empire of Care (Choy, 2003), producing cheap,
English-speaking and apparently loving workers for a growing market of care
services. Portrayed in the literature as easily exploitable and vulnerable female
domestic workers and foreigners, suffering from the separation from their families in
the Philippines while taking care of others, Filipina migrants have long since
become national icons of victimhood, especially so after the highly publicized case
of the unjustified execution of a Filipina domestic worker, Flor Contemplaciòn, in
Singapore in 1995 (Hilsdon, 2000). Filipina domestic workers’ heroism and
martyrdom have become the embodiments of a vulnerable postcolonial nation
(Rafael, 2000; Tadiar, 2004; Tyner, 2004).
Filipinos entered Israel through the tourist “loophole,” both individually and as
part of organized groups, as early as the 1970s. Alongside West African and Latin
American migrants, they sought jobs predominantly as domestic workers in the
comparatively affluent urban centers of Israel’s Mediterranean coastal region. Since
1995, Filipinos have been actively recruited within a state-sponsored system that
restricts their employment to caregiving in both private homes and public
institutions. The basis of this system was laid down on November 1, 1995, by a
decision of the Israeli Ministry of Health to bring in thousands of Filipino workers in
order to save up to fifty percent of the costs of medical and geriatric care, by shifting
the care system from hospitals to private homes (HaTokhnit HaFilipinit, “the
Filipino Plan”; see Bender, 1995). As recruited contract workers, Filipinos in Israel
became part of the growing population of “foreign workers” (‘ovdim zarim), whom
Israel recruited in large numbers from Southeast Asia, eastern Europe and elsewhere
in order to meet demands created not least by the removal of Palestinians from the
We are the Jews of today
low-wage sector of Israel’s ethnically segmented labor market (Bartram, 1998;
Rosenhek, 1999). In many respects similar to European guest-worker regimes of the
1960s and 1970s, the Israeli foreign workers regime is based on the temporalization
of the presence of migrants, who are essentialized in their status as foreigners and
their function as workers (Kemp, 2004; Rosenhek, 2000).
In spite of this, the “autonomy of migration” (Mezzadra, 2007) succeeded in
outsmarting state migration policies. Thus, some Filipinos continued to avoid the
state-sanctioned recruitment system—which typically implies “placement fees” of
up to U.S.$5,000, illegally demanded from Filipino migrants by Israeli recruitment
agencies (Kav LaOved, 2006)—and arrived as tourists, who then simply overstayed
their visas. Moreover, recruited Filipino caregivers left typically more oppressive
and economically less rewarding live-in arrangements in favor of part-time jobs as
live-out cleaners and babysitters, even though these imply illegal status in Israel.
And finally, labor migrants succeeded in organizing collectively within church
communities, regional associations and workers’ unions. As a result, processes of
migrants’ settling in Israel became increasingly noticeable, especially
in the southern neighborhoods of the country’s urban center, Tel Aviv. Here,
Filipino domestic workers, alongside labor migrants from elsewhere, rented shared
(weekend) apartments, created families, opened shops that served migrants’ needs
and collectively struggled for political, social and legal inclusion into Israeli state
In mid-2002, a change in the political climate in Israel and a campaign with
strongly racist undertones against the alleged threat of an invasion by (Christian)
foreigners of Tel Aviv and the loss of the Jewish character of the state led to the
adoption of a policy of mass deportations of illegalized migrants (Willen, 2007).
Subsequently, as thousands of migrants were literally hunted down in their
workplaces, residential areas and public spaces, arrested and deported within a short
period of time, Israel and the “appropriated” urban social spaces of southern Tel
Aviv became increasingly hostile sites. While before 2002, illegal status in Israel
was relatively insignificant in migrants’ daily lives, it was now transformed into an
acute threat of “deportability.”
This specific situation forms the background to the following ethnographic
analysis of Filipino domestic workers’ diasporic discourses as a claim for social,
legal and cultural inclusion in Israel, alongside their transnational practices and their
on-migration towards other countries, the apparently “greener pastures” of
“We are the Jews of today”: Filipino domestic workers’ claims for
compassion and the land
According to the Israeli migration regime outlined above, most Filipina migrants in
Israel are recruited as live-in caregivers. As such, they live in the private homes of
their employers and are supposed to be available for work six days a week, 24 hours
a day. Domestic labor realities therefore lie at the heart of an understanding of
Filipino migrants’ social, economic and emotional situations in Israel. Domestic
work, most especially care work in which the majority of Filipinas in Israel are
engaged in, is affective labor, deeply relational in many regards. As I will argue
below, Filipino domestic workers’ usage of diasporic discourses in Israel are infused
with (Filipino) Christian concepts and have to be seen against the background of
their domestic work experiences. As caregivers for mainly elderly Jewish persons,
Filipino domestic workers in Israel are often exposed to the experiences and traumas
of survivors of the Holocaust (Shoah) and of Jewish immigrants to Israel. The
following examples will help to illustrate this.
Thelma and Tikva
was born in 1968 in the Philippines as the youngest of eight children to
parents who separated shortly after her birth. She grew up in poverty in a rural area.
Going abroad was her “stepping stone” out of poverty, as she called it in an
interview. Thus, Thelma first left home in 1989 at the age of 21 in order to work as a
maid in Hong Kong. In 1998, she arrived in Israel, after having also worked in
Taiwan for some years, and was employed as a legal live-in caregiver to Tikva.
Tikva immigrated to Israel from Yemen in the mid-1950s together with her husband
and four small children. At our first meeting, Tikva recalled her first years in Israel
as a time of economic hardship and racial discrimination by lighter-skinned
Ashkenazi Jews. After years of living in a reception camp and later a poverty-ridden
neighborhood of so-called Oriental immigrants on the outskirts of southern Tel
Aviv, she now continues to live in the city in a two-room apartment with Thelma.
Throughout most of her adult years in Israel, Tikva, just like Thelma, worked
as a domestic worker in homes in the Tel Aviv area. As a religious woman, Tikva
told me during a visit to her home, she considered it her moral duty (mitzvah) to take
care of Thelma and her Filipino friends since they were foreigners in the country,
just as she had felt herself to be for so long. Thus, Thelma regularly invited her
Filipino friends who were employed in other homes in the neighborhood during
evenings or on Saturdays, the Jewish Shabbat. On one of these Saturdays, Thelma,
Tikva, two other Filipina caregivers and I were playing a Filipino card game, eating
jahnun (the traditional Yemenite Shabbat dish Tikva had taught Thelma to prepare)
and chatting. Our conversations that day, which went on late into the evening, were
conducted in a mixture of English, Tagalog (the dominant language in the
Philippines) and Hebrew, intermixed with Arabic words that Thelma had picked up
from Tikva. They circled around family members elsewhere, Israeli society, the
difficulties of living away from home and the differences between Filipino, German,
Yemenite and Israeli cuisine.
We are the Jews of today
In 2007, against the background of a deterioration in Tikva’s mental and
physical condition, Thelma was planning to leave Israel and continue working in
Western Europe or Canada. She told me: “We Filipinos are the Jews of today.”
Explaining this further, she said that the ongoing economic hardships of her family
in the Philippines—that is, her parents, several sisters and brothers and her daughter,
for whom she was forced to provide by herself because the father denied any
responsibility—forced her to continue working abroad. If not in Israel, where she
would be prevented from staying on legally if Tikva passed away,
then in another
country, possibly somewhere where the wages and the prospects of becoming a
citizen were better.
Anne and Rachel, Rose and Deborah
By the time I met Anne, another Filipina interlocutor, in 2004, she was employed in
an expensive private old people’s home beside the beach south of Tel Aviv. About
thirty Filipina caregivers were employed in the home, which accommodated
approximately 360 Israeli residents, many of whom were affluent immigrants of
West European origin. Anne’s employer, Rachel, had immigrated to Israel in the
early 1990s from Rio de Janeiro. She had grown up in a well-to-do Jewish family in
Berlin and fled to France in the second half of the 1930s. During WWII, she and her
husband experienced an odyssey through Western Europe and North Africa, hoping
to make it to the U.S., but ending up in Brazil, as she put it. In 1990, after her
husband passed away, Rachel followed several of her Jewish-German-Brazilian
friends, who had decided to spend their old age in Israel. When Anne first
introduced me to her, Rachel was bedridden and in poor physical condition.
Throughout the months that followed, Rachel was repeatedly hospitalized until she
finally died in September 2005.
By that time, Anne was clearly one of the Filipino community’s “veterans” in
Israel, having first entered the country in 1989. She regularly contributed poems to a
Filipino magazine published in Israel, Manila Tel Aviv, and for many years had
organized group tours and community events during her weekends off. Anne came
from a middle-class family of plantation owners in Quezon Province and held a
bachelor’s degree in political science. She decided to work abroad because her job
as a travel company manager in the Philippines did not generate enough income to
provide for a decent education for her son, whom she was forced to raise as a single
mother, like Thelma and many other Filipina migrants. Also like Thelma, Anne
talked about Rachel in deeply emotional terms and considered her a “good”
employer. As I saw during numerous visits to the old people’s home, Anne and
Rachel often engaged in conversations about their families and life experiences, and
Anne said she learnt a great deal from Rachel about the Shoah, World War II from a
European perspective and Jewish history. Reflecting on her talks with Rachel, Anne,
like Thelma, compared her own situation as an OFW (Overseas Filipino Worker;
such is the official term used by the Philippine government) to that of the Jewish
people: forced to live away from her home and loved ones, discriminated against for
being “foreign,” but forming intensive emotional bonds with members of one’s own
group living in exile.
Throughout Rachel’s last months of life, Anne lived in constant fear that
Rachel might die. Whenever she was hospitalized, Anne stayed with her, sleeping
on a mat beside her bed and refusing to leave even for her weekly day off. When I
met her shortly after Rachel’s death, she said she felt emotionally devastated. Since
Rachel had not left any children behind, it was largely left to Anne to pack up and
distribute large parts of Rachel’s personal belongings. She felt emotionally unable to
throw away any of Rachel’s belongings and decided to keep some of her
photographs to herself. She told me that she felt as if she was the last person who
would one day remember Rachel’s life story, and she felt the urge to write about her.
While packing up Rachel’s belongings, Anne thought about packing up her own
belongings as well and returning to the Philippines: “She was a good woman. I miss
her. I don’t want to work for another family, because she was like my family. So I
think I will just return to the Philippines.”
After I left Anne that day, I went to meet another Filipina interview partner,
Rose, and told her about the previous meeting with Anne. “Oh yes, I know how she
must feel,” Rose said. At the time she was working for Deborah, a Shoah survivor.
Rose went on to tell me how Deborah often woke up at night from nightmares and
sometimes talked to her for hours about the torture and sufferings she had endured in
a German concentration camp. Throughout these talks, Deborah had told her things
(about being raped, for example) that Rose was sure she had not even told her own
children. “I might be the last to know her stories,” Rose told me, and added: “And I
know better German than her children do.”
Against the background of physical confinement, daily interaction and
intimacy, the Filipina and Israeli migrant women portrayed above formed strong
affective ties. The labor arrangements described above are certainly exceptional in
their overall harmoniousness between the giver and the recipient of care, though
they remain structurally exploitative. Nevertheless, they illustrate the typically
intimate encounters between Filipino domestic workers and Israeli employers. As
“members of the family” in a much deeper sense than the literature on domestic
work suggests (e.g., Anderson, 2000:122ff.; Constable, 1997:104), Filipina domestic
workers may derive a sense of belonging and even right to being recognized as part
of Israeli society from their daily roles as the managers of households and as not
simply the caregivers, but the symbolic—and in some cases even material—
heiresses of Israel’s sick and elderly. As such, so the following will show, they
claimed inclusion and the right to stay when the Israeli migration regime turned
increasingly exclusionary towards them.
A profound change in Israeli state policies towards migration occurred, as
mentioned, in late 2002, when a massive deportation campaign was launched,
enforced by a newly established Migration Police, a police unit assigned the task of
We are the Jews of today
deporting illegalized migrants from Israel. Filipino domestic workers in Israel came
to be most seriously affected by deportations when, in August 2003, the Immigration
Authority announced Operation Housecleaning, aimed—as the rather cynical name
implies—at arresting so-called illegal domestic workers (Leibovich-Dar, 2003). In
the weeks and months that followed (and to a lesser degree until today), even
Filipino domestic workers with a valid work permit found themselves being stopped
and arrested by policemen in public, or experienced the police raiding their shared
weekend apartments in southern Tel Aviv. Thousands of overstayers were deported.
Against this background, Filipinos’ diasporic discourses likening their experiences
to those of the Jewish diaspora were increasingly voiced in and towards the Israeli
public. The claims that “We are the Jews of today” came to be heard during
gatherings to protest against the state’s deportation policy and was used by
community leaders during interviews with Israeli journalists and policymakers, as
well as Filipino writers in migrants’ magazines such as Manila Tel Aviv.
an article about his own arrest and deportation to the Philippines, Elbert Cainday,
the first Filipino editor of Manila Tel Aviv, wondered whether the younger officers
of the Israeli Migration Police were so “heartless and rude, because they have not
suffered in a foreign land, the realities of the Diaspora is [sic!] so remote and
irrelevant to them,” unlike elderly officers who were apparently more compassionate
with Filipino migrants, due to their own experiences of exile and immigration
In June 2005, a comparison between Jewish historical experiences and
contemporary Filipino ones was undertaken by the Philippine ambassador to Israel,
Antonio Modena, though with a slightly different connotation. Modena was said to
have compared the Israeli Migration Police with the Gestapo, the secret police of
Nazi Germany. In an interview to an Israeli newspaper, he was quoted as saying
that, “[j]ust like the Nazis treated the Jews, you know, that’s how the immigration
police treat us. [...] They don’t think twice about raiding a Filipino home in the wee
hours of the morning” (cited in Stevens, 2005).
It is clear that, in these contexts, the reference to being a modern-day diaspora
suffering from exile, racial discrimination and legal, political and social exclusion
from mainstream society serves most of all as a claim towards inclusion, namely that
one be allowed to stay on (in the case of illegalized domestic workers), be granted
social, economic and political rights, and be treated humanely in Israel. Moreover, it
shows Filipinos’ knowledge of and even identification with Jewish history and
suffering, often acquired through their intimate encounters as domestic workers in
Israeli homes. Nevertheless, using the language of diaspora is far more than a
political strategy. At least in the case of domestic workers, it is an affective plea for
compassion and subsequent betterment of their treatment. As such, it has to be seen
within a culturally infused emphasis on suffering and compassion that is closely
linked to Filipino notions of Christianity and religious practices in Israel.
In her study of Power and Intimacy in the Christian Philippines, Fenella
Cannell (1999) analyzes pity and compassion (Tagalog damay, “to feel with
someone”) as central cultural concepts. Rather than the images of either Christ
crucified or Christ risen, it is those of Christ arousing pity that are of central
importance in the Philippine lowland’s Christian life, just as it is the story of
Christ’s suffering, the pasyon, which is publicly enacted, pitied and experienced
with compassion during an important annual celebration (Cannell, 1999:165ff.).
According to local Christian belief, to pity the suffering and to care for someone is
to become Christ’s intimate, to share his ordeal.
As domestic workers in Israel, taking care of elderly and needy persons—and
given the double meaning of “care” as comprising both the practical tasks of caring
or nursing and the affective dimension implied in the term—(Christian) Filipinos, as
they are fond of pointing out, are the ones who really care for the Jewish people and
the “Holy Land.” As such, they emphasize, Filipinos have a special responsibility
for Israel, a mission. This can be illustrated by the following quotation from a
preaching of an evangelical activist, Pastor Ed, from the Philippines, addressing the
predominantly Filipino congregation of a southern Tel Aviv born-again church
(Living Stone Ministry):
See that God has a purpose for you! […]Whether we like it or not, all the
prophecies is [sic!] being fulfilled before our very own eyes. You see,
Filipinos—why there are eleven [million] legal Filipinos all over the world
and there are about five million illegal Filipinos all over the world in 148
countries? There are around 15 to 16 million Filipinos all over the world.
You see? Like the Jews before, during the time of Joseph—they were
slaves! Filipinos today are slaves all over the world. The very meaning of
that word “Filipina”—you know that?—is a domestic helper. But, Church,
start to rise up! [Shouts from the audience: Amen!] You, Filipinas, you are
not just an ordinary metapelet [Hebrew, “caregiver”] and you will not stay
as a metapelet forever! [Shouts from the audience: Amen!] Hello! [Shouting
in Tagalog:] You are not a metapelet for life!
By being modern-day “slaves,” dispersed around the world “like the Jews
before,” Christian Filipinos, so the preacher claims, are much more than “ordinary
caregivers” (metaplot). As he continued to make clear in his preaching that night,
they turn into missionaries by “sharing the Word” of the Christian Bible with their
Jewish employers, that is converting them to Christianity. Hereby, Filipino
caregivers in Israel occupy a crucial role within the Christian doctrine of
redemption, the coming of the end of times. Rather than being directed towards an
Israeli audience, the diaspora discourse here functions within the migrant
community, as a strategy to re-narrate Filipinos’ current situation of vulnerability
and powerlessness as “slaves” into a position of power as Christian “redeemers,” by
evoking the historical example of the Jewish diaspora from the Bible.
A related migrant discourse that has evolved significantly in this context is
described by Adriana Kemp and Rebecca Raijman in their research on evangelical
We are the Jews of today
Latin American labor migrants in Israel, as “Christian Zionism” (Kemp and
Raijman, 2003; Raijman and Kemp, 2004). By claiming a “greater Israel” in the
biblical boundaries of the land, employing a language of love and emotional
belonging to Jews and Israel, and engaging in a religiously motivated nationalism
comparable to that of their Jewish counterparts, Christian labor migrants, the authors
claim, become “Ambassadors of Zion” (Kemp and Raijman, 2003). The religious
narratives and practices of Latin American Christian Zionists they describe are in
many regards identical with those used by Filipino (evangelical) Christians in
Thus, Filipino Christians often integrate Jewish concepts, objects and
practices into their own religion to a point where the boundaries and differences
between Christianity and Judaism become blurred. For example, they observe
Jewish holidays like Pesah or Yom Kippur, put up Stars of David and menorot
(seven-branched candelabras) in their shared weekend apartments and churches and
typically share right-wing Jewish ideologies of the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple
in Jerusalem or “greater Israel.” During church services and especially weekend
group pilgrimages, Filipino Christians claim the land by practicing their religion.
They emotionally relate to the sites they visit, considering them holy, and become
publicly visible as typically large and organized groups. Nevertheless, they claim the
land without challenging the hegemonic definitions of Israeli state and society,
namely Judaism and Zionism.
Against the background of their far-reaching exclusion from the legal, political
and cultural aspects of Israeli citizenship, Filipino domestic workers’ culturally and
religiously infused claims to and identification with Jewish history and suffering
therefore have to be viewed as both a re-narration of power and, directed towards the
wider public, a political demand for inclusion, based on the affective appeal for
compassion. Yet, as I will show in the following, Filipino diasporic discourses
cannot be reduced to either the position of domestic workers within the Israeli
migration regime nor to Filipino or Christian cultural concepts. Rather, they must
also be related to Filipino migrants’ global dreams and pathways and their
embeddedness in a global capitalist migration regime, as well as typically larger
transnational social fields.
On Filipino transnational social fields and imagined global communities
Filipino labor migrants employed as domestic workers abroad have been described
as prototypical “transmigrants,” who develop and maintain multiple social,
economic, political and religious relations that span the borders of nation-states
(Glick-Schiller, Basch and Blanc-Szanton, 1992). As became clear during my field
work, Filipinos do not migrate out of mere poverty, but have a complex array of
reasons for their decision to leave home, including dreams of a better life, a search
for political refuge and—especially in respect to female migration—their physical
removal from repressive gender roles and family structures. Even though Filipino
domestic workers in Israel and elsewhere typically migrate alone—leaving behind
their parents, spouses and in many cases children—their migration moves are
organized, financed and undertaken collectively. Thus, elder brothers or sisters may
feel a responsibility to work abroad in order to be able to finance their younger
siblings’ education; households may have to pool their money to pay the large
placement fees required by recruitment agencies; and migrants typically follow
former classmates, neighbors or relatives abroad. Thus, in conformity with the kuha
system, in which migrating family members are expected to help their kin to follow
after they have established themselves abroad, migrants are expected to sponsor the
migration of typically younger female family members such as nieces, daughters-in-
laws or daughters financially, if not to one’s own destination country, then to
another. As a result, Filipino labor migrants are typically integrated into large social
and familial networks that stretch across the national borders of several states.
Not surprisingly, Filipino migrants are expected to share the material benefits
of their stays abroad and to support those who have remained in the Philippines
financially. Each of the migrant women interviewed or encountered during research
in Israel sent cash remittances to family members, in the majority of cases once a
month to their husband, mother or—if these were not identical—the carer of their
children. In order to maintain transnational social ties and to relieve the “pain of
separation,” I was told, Filipinos depend heavily on what Deirdre McKay (2006),
writing on Filipino migrant workers in Hong Kong, has termed “translocal everyday
technologies.” These include telephoning with pre-paid calling cards, sending text
messages through mobile phones (“texting”), using the Internet or sending
Even the most superficial observation of Filipino migrants in
Israel will show the extreme importance of various means of mass communication in
the everyday lives of migrant women. In Neve Sha’anan, the southern Tel Aviv area
where a large number of Filipino migrants meet and live during their weekends off
from work, numerous Internet cafes, as well as shops with international calling
cards, mobile phones and mobile phone accessories are strikingly evident. On
Sundays, the usual weekly day off for Filipino live-in domestic workers, long lines
of people waiting to talk to family members and friends in the Philippines form in
front of public phone booths. At the same time, Neve Sha’anan’s Internet cafes are
crowded with Filipinos and other foreign workers writing e-mails and chatting or
communicating through web-cams or Internet telephone programs. The notion of
“cellphone families” has become a widespread expression in the Philippines for
families with core members abroad.
Not least due to their extensive transnational social ties and use of
communication techniques, Filipino migrants are generally well informed about the
working conditions, legal regulations and Filipinos’ living arrangements in other
places abroad. Thus, in Building Diaspora, Emily Noelle Ignacio (2005) analyzes
the vast role of Internet chat rooms and newsgroups on the formation of an
(imagined) global Filipino community. Moreover, Filipino domestic workers are
We are the Jews of today
typically organized in church groups and regional or tribal associations, as well as in
political networks such as fraternities, parties or labor unions. Members’ migration
to practically every nation-state in the world has generated global networks and a
global diaspora, which—at least in the case of religious groups—are strongly
supported by their global outreach activities and mission. As an example, the full-
gospel “Jesus Is Lord” ministry, founded in 1978 in the Philippines, possesses
churches and conversion centers in practically every state where Filipinos are
employed in large numbers.
In Israel, the group has established nine churches and other places of worship
(in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Beer Sheva, Afula, Haifa, Nazareth, Netanya, Rehovot and
Eilat) and plans to “conquer” other locations, including Gaza City. Within the
church administrative structure, “Jesus Is Lord Israel” is part of “Jesus Is Lord
Europe,” whose center is situated in Milan, Italy, which has one of the largest
concentration of Filipino domestic workers among Europe’s urban centers (Parreñas,
2001). Through the on-migration of church members, these different locations are
frequently connected by strong personal as well as institutional social ties. Hence,
many Filipino domestic workers who were church members in Hong Kong
continued to work in Israel and, especially after the introduction of Israel’s
deportation campaign, left Israel for “greener pastures” in Western Europe, where
they typically enjoy a high status within the church, due to their being former
residents of the “Holy Land,” speakers of Hebrew and “experts” in Jewish practices
This leads us to a point which, even in comparative research on Filipina
domestic workers abroad (e.g., Parreñas, 2001; Stasiulis and Bakan, 2005), has
received hardly any attention, namely that Filipina migrants are serially
transnational. Engaged in border-crossing journeys through a number of nation-
states, many Filipina migrants move on and on rather than back and forth between
the Philippines and a country of destination. As research has shown, they move on
and on within a global hierarchy of desirable destination countries, ranked according
to differences in salaries and legal entitlements, the costs and risks of entry and
subjective attractiveness. Within this global hierarchy, Israel holds a middle
position, above most Asian and Middle Eastern destination countries, where many
women were employed before coming to Israel, but clearly below Western Europe
and North America, which ultimately may grant citizenship (and family reunion), so
they hope, and which many dream of reaching as their final destination.
Within this process, the global moves of typically unmarried, separated or
unhappily married women, for whom “home” becomes an increasingly abstract
category as they spend large parts of their lives elsewhere, often takes on the form of
self-sustaining global journeys. Like the Dominicans described by Ninna Nyberg
Sorensen (1998), Filipino domestic workers therefore appear to be “natives” of the
transnational space, integrated into a large imagined and practiced global
In From Exile to Diaspora, the American sociologist of Filipino origin, Epifanio San
Juan, suggests that the transported, displaced and “longing-for-home bodies” of
Filipinos “now ‘belong’ to the whole world” (1998:6), as a diaspora analogous to the
African and Chinese global dispersal. In what at times sounds like a political
manifesto for the Filipino diaspora, San Juan goes on to write:
... I envision the Filipino community shaping its own identity through
solidarity with all the oppressed and exploited as a responsible autonomous
force committed to distributive justice, to genuine self-determination, to
socialist democracy. Opposing a common enemy, this struggle necessarily
traverses space and crosses state boundaries, joining the diaspora with
brothers and sisters in the islands in Southeast Asia and reconstructing the
homeland as habitat for a segment of the human species (1998:16).
As in the case of San Juan, the notion of a Filipino diaspora as a designation of
Filipinos residing outside the Philippines is popular in the literature on Filipino
migration, especially in the publications of writers who see themselves as part of just
such a global community (Beltran and Rodriguez, 1996; Ignacio, 2005). Indeed, the
common features generally associated with diasporas—such as geographical
dispersal or expansion, the collective memory of a homeland, return movements to
this homeland, ethnic group consciousness and solidarity with co-ethnic members,
and a troubled relationship with “host” societies (Cohen, 1997:21ff.)—seem to apply
well to a great number of Filipinos abroad. Numerous publications on the subject
suggest that the millions of so-called OFWs do imagine the experiences of their co-
Filipinos (kababayan) elsewhere abroad as similar, notwithstanding differences of
class and gender, in that they share a group consciousness as a community of fate.
This is based on the knowledge that Filipino migrants are widely excluded and
discriminated against in a world system in which being “Filipino” is associated with
being a cheap oilfield worker or seaman and being “Filipina” with being a caring
maid vulnerable to exploitation and abuse (Gonzales, 1998; Ignacio, 2005; Parreñas,
2001; San Juan, 1998; Tadiar, 2004).
This article has shown how diasporic discourses are employed by Filipino
migrants in Israel in strong relation with their experiences as domestic workers in
Israeli homes, their religious and culturally infused narratives and practices, and
their rigid exclusion from legal, political and social participation by Israeli state
migration policies. As became clear, Filipino domestic workers’ public invocations
of being the “Jews of today” came at a specific historical moment, when Israel
decided to use force to enact its state-sanctioned legal caregiver system against the
autonomy of migration through the establishment of a police deportation unit. This
unit forced not only illegalized but also legal domestic workers (and, to a lesser
We are the Jews of today
extent, Philippine embassy officials) to suffer humiliating, time-consuming and at
times violent controls and arrests, and resulted in a temporal restriction of their stays
in Israel. In this situation, Filipinos’ diasporic discourses have served as a political
strategy based on affective appeals to the compassion of the Israeli public and
In this sense, the Filipino domestic workers’ use of the language of diaspora
contradicts that of the literature on the Filipino diaspora cited above: while diaspora
is invoked by (American) Filipino writers and researchers because they may feel a
connection with the Philippines as their original home, Filipino domestic workers in
Israel used diasporic discourses precisely to prove their understanding of and
belonging to Israel as a “new home.” Therefore, as James Clifford points out, “the
term diaspora is a signifier, not simply of transnationality and movement, but of
political struggles to define the local, as distinctive community, in historical contexts
of displacement” (1994:308). A diasporic consciousness, Clifford goes on to write,
“makes the best of a bad situation” (1994:311). This suggests an understanding of
diasporic discourses as means of communication and political tools. Given the
history (and success) of the Zionist movements’ use of the language of diaspora, the
political content of diasporic discourses is hardly new or surprising. As a discourse
that often evokes ethnic solidarity and speaks in a highly emotion-laden language, it
should be carefully analyzed in its specific historical, social and economic
situatedness, rather than being celebrated.
If we view the stress on diasporas and the diasporization of the world as a
social product, we can start analyzing the social realities, emotional needs and
political dreams that create it, rather than using “diaspora” as an analytic concept or
metaphor. As a social fact, the description of experiences of globalization and
migration in the language of diaspora, like the self-identification of social groups
such as Filipino labor migrants as a global imagined community, draws our attention
to the political as well as affective sides of these experiences. Perhaps above all, use
of claims such as “We are the Jews of today” by Filipino domestic workers in Israel
shows that, far from being mere victims of global capitalism, Filipina domestic
workers have appropriated a discourse of victimhood used by Jews in the dispersion,
the archetypal diaspora, but within a post-modern world in which they have become
global players, actively negotiating citizenship. They conceive of themselves as
cosmopolitans who reach out beyond their cultural, religious and ethno-national
origins, to feel at home in the world, despite their working-class occupations and
non-elite status. They are, in Werbner’s words (1999), “working class
For the latest figures on official numbers of world migrants, see
http://esa.un.org/migration/p2k0data.asp; last accessed November 7, 2007.
Exact figures on Filipino citizens abroad are lacking. The Philippine government
estimates the number of Filipinos working abroad at 6.5–7.5 million
(http://www.poea.gov.ph/html/statistics.html; last accessed November 7, 2007), whereas
NGOs generally speak of eight million (see, for example, the website of Migrante
International at http://migrante.tripod.com/; last accessed November 7, 2007).
Thus, on May 15, 2007, the Philippine Central Bank announced that the remittances of
overseas Filipinos had remained above the U.S.$1 billion mark for the eleventh straight
month; accordingly, the remittances amounted to U.S.$3.5 billion in the first quarter of 2007
(see Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Media Release on May 15, 2007, at
http://www.bsp.gov.ph/publications/media.asp?id=1574; last accessed August 5, 2007). The
central importance of remittances for domestic consumption and the Philippine currency is
generally recognized (Mellyn, 2003).
For more recent data on Filipino out-migrants, see the statistics of the Philippine
Overseas Employment Administration at http://www.poea.gov.ph/html/statistics.html (last
accessed November 7, 2007).
The discourse on Filipina migrant workers as national heroines was coined by
President Corazòn Aquino, who in 1988 addressed a crowd of Filipina domestic workers in
Hong Kong as the “new heroines of the nation” (Tadiar, 2004:147).
By using the term ‘illegalized’ instead of ‘illegal’ migrant, I intend to emphasize the
production of migrant illegality through state law and practices.
Thus, in September 2002, the Israeli government established a so-called Immigration
Authority, whose responsibility was to implement a cabinet decision of August 18, 2002, to
“deport 50,000 illegals annually” (acting Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, protocol of
government decision no. 2469, August 18, 2002). Less than two years after its establishment,
in June 2004, the Immigration Authority publicly announced having deported 100,000 “illegal
aliens”; this makes the Israeli expulsion operation of migrant workers one of the largest in the
Western world after 1945 (Sinai, 2004).
In distinguishing between migrant illegality and deportability, I follow DeGenova
The names of Filipino interviewees have been replaced by pseudonyms throughout the
According to the so-called binding arrangement, Filipino caregivers’ permits to stay in
Israel are legally tied to their employment with an Israeli citizen specified in their passports
(Kemp, 2004). In spite of a High Justice Court ruling in March 2006, which called the binding
arrangement a “modern form of slavery” and demanded its abolition (High Justice Court
4542/02), it remains largely in practice within the caregiving sector (Kav LaOved and Hotline
for Migrant Workers, 2007:40ff.). Moreover, domestic employment permits must be extended
We are the Jews of today
annually and can generally be prolonged for a period of up to 51 months only (though in some
cases migrant carers may prolong their employment permit beyond 51 months if they stay
with the same employer; Gilbert and Krieger, 2004). Given these regulations, Thelma’s
permit to stay and work in Israel expires the moment Tikva dies.
This is based on an unsystematic media observation during the time. Among the
events I attended, where this claim was voiced, was a demonstration against the deportations
of migrant workers’ illegalized children organized by several NGOs in southern Tel Aviv on
September 3, 2003, and a protest during the U.N.’s International Migrant’s Day on December
18, 2004, outside the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.
Ambassador Modena’s remark triggered political outrage among Israeli state officials,
and former Israeli Justice Minister and Shoah survivor Joseph Lapid demanded that he either
apologize or leave Israel (Stevens, 2005). Modena apologized for his remarks after being
summoned by the Israeli Foreign Ministry (Bahur-Nir, 2005).
Transcript of preaching by Pastor Ed in Living Stone Ministry, recorded January 12,
While the majority of Filipinos in Israel (like Filipino Christians in general) are
Roman Catholics, more than a dozen large evangelical groups of Filipinos run churches in the
country. Moreover, even though evangelical groups established by labor migrants in Israel
tend to be divided into different national or ethnic groups, the global outreach and
transnational orientation of “born-again evangelicals” needs to be emphasized. As
Karagiannis and Glick-Schiller have recently pointed out, the persistent use of ethnic groups
as the unit of analysis within research on religious migrant groups systematically neglects
their transnational claims and ideological consistency (2006:141).
The term balikbayan (lit. “homecomers”) was created in the early 1970s by President
Marcos with the aim of strengthening the ties between the Philippines and its overseas
nationals in order to generate economic investments. The large cardboard balikbayan boxes
allow overseas Filipinos to send objects free of duty up to a value of U.S.$1,000 to the
Philippines (Rafael, 2000:207).
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