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Hebrew-Speaking Chinese Look West to Zion

A few months ago I got into an elevator in one of the new glass towers that dot Beijing’s Central Business District, joining two Chinese men and a foreigner for the ride down to the lobby. As we descended, the three men began talking, and for a second I thought my ears were deceiving me, as the language they were speaking was Hebrew. I turned around in shock, and one of the Chinese, seeing the look of surprise on my face, asked me, “Ata midaber ivrit?” (“Do you speak Hebrew?”).

“Yes,” I responded in that language, “but I didn’t expect to hear Chinese speak Hebrew in China.” He chuckled and then told me that he had spent four years working as an agricultural laborer on a moshav not far from Haifa. It was there that he had picked up the language. His friend had a similar story. They had returned to China a year ago, when their Israeli work visas expired. Despite the long hours and hard labor on the farms, they wanted to return to Israel, but could not afford the thousands of dollars required for visa permits. “Chaval,” he said. “It’s a pity.”

As Israelis pour into Beijing for the Olympic Games, and more Chinese tourists are set to make the trip to Israel, following a joint agreement signed by the two countries last year, those thousands of Chinese who for years have headed to the Jewish state seeking work in agriculture and construction are getting little recognition for their contribution to friendly Sino-Israeli relations.

When I volunteered for the Tel Aviv-based labor-rights organization Kav La’Oved, known in English as The Worker’s Hotline, a few years ago, I met Chinese who were suffering in silence from abuse, as well as illegal wage and passport confiscation at the hands of Israeli employers. Many feared deportation for fleeing such conditions, or because the Israeli government thought they were in the country illegally. While not always the case, it appears that some Chinese workers in Israel are still trapped by these problems.

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