Israeli immigration policy takes center stage on reality TV singing contest

Israel’s often-controversial immigration policy was spotlighted in an unexpected place this week: on a reality TV singing competition.

On Monday night’s episode of “Hakochav Haba” (Rising Star), contestant Kfir Tsafrir dedicated his performance, an original song titled “Esh” (Fire), to Daniel Cruz, an undocumented teenager in danger of deportation.

Cruz, 17, who is of Filipino descent, was born in Israel and has lived here his entire life. But he and his entire family face deportation since they lack any permanent residency status in the State of Israel.

With Cruz and his family in the audience, Tsafrir performed his song with lyrics including, “You’ll be anything you want to be, you’ll see,” in a moving performance that left several of the judges in tears.

“This is the most beautiful Israeli there is,” Tsafrir told the judges of Daniel after his performance. “This is a child who wants to be enlisted in the IDF… and his struggle is the most justified struggle there is.”

Contest judge Assaf Amdursky, a singer-songwriter, said he thinks “it doesn’t make sense that people like this, who are so Israeli, who are so much a part of us, should have to go through this torture.”

Cruz is one of an estimated hundreds of Filipino children born in Israel who face deportation. While his parents came to Israel legally as caregivers, foreign workers who become pregnant must send their babies home or else they cannot renew their visas and face arrest if they do not leave the country of their own accord.

Proponents of Israel’s immigration policy say such measures are necessary to maintain the country’s character as a majority-Jewish state, and that children like Cruz are the victims of their parents’ decision to break the law.

In an interview on Channel 12 the day after “Hakochav Haba” aired, Cruz said he tries not to dwell on the daily threat of deportation to a country he has never visited.

“I try to think about it as little as possible because it’s stressful,” he said. “When I think about it it’s hard to focus on what I have to do.”

Filipino workers and their children protest against their their imminent deportation outside Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on June 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Tsafrir, who advanced in the competition, wrote on Instagram Monday night, shortly after the show aired, that while he is fighting to stay in the contest, “Daniel is fighting for his identity.”

“He’s fighting for his natural place in the place where he was born and grew up his entire life, fighting to enlist, fighting to stay with his friends, fighting to continue in the same school,” Tsafrir wrote, “fighting for his right to be Israeli.”

The United Children of Israel nonprofit group, which advocates for the rights of undocumented children in Israel, said that Daniel’s struggle is shared by many in similar situations.

“Daniel belongs in Israel, just like all the children who were born and raised in this country, and now face the danger of deportation,” the organization wrote in a statement. “These children are waiting for the government to do the right thing, before it’s too late. It’s time to remove the threat of deportation, and legalize the status of the children.”

A columnist on the right-wing religious news site Srugim, meanwhile, opined that the primetime platform for such issues was out of place.

“In an issue so complicated, the fact that the discussion was held casually, as if it were a clear and simple truth, greater care must be taken,” the columnist wrote, adding that Amdursky’s suggestion of a legislative fix for the issue “does not belong on a reality show, and certainly not on a music show.”

Foreign workers, their children and supporters take part in a protest against the deportation of the children of Filipino workers in Tel Aviv, on August 6, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

This week’s episode of “Hakohav Haba” was not the first time that the plight of undocumented Filipinos was featured on reality TV.

The Kan reality cooking show “Come Dine With Me” last year featured KC Zapata, the daughter of Filipino workers who was born in Israel. The pairing of Zapata with an anti-migrant activist at the same table led to some heated debates: “Oh great, you’re the one who deported my father,” she said at one point. “Because of people like you, I have a broken family.”

Stephane Legar, a popular Israeli singer who was born in Israel to Togolese parents, has revealed in interviews that he was threatened with deportation as a child. Legar eventually became an Israeli citizen last year, after completing his IDF service.

“After I received [citizenship], I said ‘Finally, I got what I was supposed to get,’” Legar told the Ynet news site in an interview last year. “I didn’t have a passport, I had a Togolese passport and now I have an Israeli one. I’m changing something here by succeeding. It’s opening up some sort of door, giving a sense of security to Black people, to different people, to non-Jews.”

In a popular song released last year titled “Nice to Meet Me,” Legar satirized the way he is viewed by many Israelis – appearing in IDF uniform as well as dressed as a delivery driver for Wolt – a job very often filled by African migrants.

“It’s me, the goy [non-Jew], the different one, the international Black guy,” he sings. “I’m from Togo, I’m from Congo, extremely not from here, but if I accomplish something it’s an Israeli accomplishment?”

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