Thai Migrant Workers and the Dog-Eating Myth
Thai Migrant Workers and the Dog-Eating Myth
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter studies the prevailing total social fact that the Thai migrant workers who make for the bulk of the agricultural workforce in Israel systematically hunt and eat Israeli pet dogs. Despite extensive media accusations and widespread public consensus regarding the Thai penchant for Israeli dogs, ethnographic research reveals that Thai migrant workers do not hunt or eat dogs in Israel or in Thailand. The chapter argues that Israel's constituting socialist ethos conflicts deeply with the notion of migrant labor, especially when it comes to agriculture in the “working settlements”—kibbutzim and moshavim—that are the iconic manifestations of socialist Zionism. The chapter shows how this culinary myth defines a particular kind of negative exoticism that facilitated the dehumanization of the Thai migrant workers and justified their ongoing exploitation.
Dog eating is an international urban legend with some truth to it. Everybody knows that Asians eat dogs.
FRANK WU, Professor of law at Harvard University (Wu 2002, 40)
IT IS A WELL-ESTABLISHED ISRAELI total social fact that Thai migrant workers, who make up the bulk of the agricultural workforce in Israel, systematically hunt and eat Israeli pet dogs. Canine flesh, however, is rarely eaten in Thailand, and my investigations of reported cases of dog-meat eating by Thai migrant workers in Israel repeatedly led to the conclusion that the specific events I was examining did not actually involve the consumption of dog meat. My follow-up of media reports on dog-meat consumption by Thai migrant workers produced similar results: despite the bold headlines and condemning readers’ comments, the reports accusing Thai migrant workers of hunting and eating dogs regularly turned out to be ambiguous texts in which the question of whether dog meat was actually eaten by Thai migrant workers remained unclear. Why is it, then, that Israelis are so adamant that Thai migrant workers eat the flesh of their pet dogs?
In this chapter, I turn from Israeli culinary preferences to Israeli beliefs about the culinary preferences of others. I argue that dog hunting and dog eating are myths made up by Israelis to define the Thais, members of the new global class of cheap laborers, as subhuman and to relegate them to the bottom of the Israeli power structure, thereby justifying their economic exploitation.
I collected some of the data presented in this chapter during the late 1990s. I gathered further ethnographic data over the years in different contexts. While the early data may seem outdated and irrelevant, my argument in this chapter is that at a specific moment in time, in the mid-1990s, Israelis had to deal with the arrival of a significant number of migrant workers and with the (p.179) dilemmas they posed for a nation that was still upholding, at least rhetorically, a socialist ethos and that was still venerating self-sufficiency, hard work, and especially agriculture. The arrival of significant numbers of non-Jewish immigrants to the country also challenged Israel’s ethnocratic (Yiftachel 2006) and orientalizing (Khazzoom 2003) organizing principles. Once the accusation that Thai immigrants ate dog meat was established as a total social fact in the late 1990s, these dilemmas were solved, at least to a certain extent, and called only for occasional “maintenance,” which, as I will show, is ongoing.
Thai Migrant Workers and Israeli Dogs
The first Thai migrant workers arrived in Israel in 1993.1 During the 1990s, increasing numbers of migrant workers came to Israel to replace the Palestinians, who had provided the bulk of cheap manpower for the Israeli economy since the 1967 occupation (Bartram 1998). In 1995, Palestinian suicide attacks by organizations opposing the Oslo Peace Accords led Prime Minister Rabin’s government to impose sgarim (literally “closures”) on the occupied territories, which resulted in manpower shortages and had an immediate negative impact on various segments of the Israeli economy, most importantly on agriculture, construction, and caregiving. Rising pressure from employers and a failure to attract Israeli Jews to these jobs (Rosenhek 2000) led to a government decision to import migrant workers. 10,000 work permits were issued in 1993; 70,000 in 1995; 100,000 in 1996; and 80,000 in 1998 (Rosenhek 2000).
The actual numbers of legal and undocumented migrant workers in the country is unclear and contested. According to a Knesset report, there were 70,000 migrant workers employed in the construction industry, 22,500 migrant workers employed in agriculture, and 55,000 migrant workers with jobs in nursing and caregiving in the country in 2014.2 According to the Immigration Authority, in late 2015 there were 77,000 legal migrant workers and 16,000 undocumented migrant workers in Israel; 22,000 legal migrant workers and 650 undocumented workers were legally employed in agriculture. Since only Thais are employed in agriculture, the total number of Thais employed in Israeli comes to roughly 23,000.3 Other estimates suggest a total of 100,000 legal workers and another 100,000 undocumented ones, though most sources state that there are only a small number of undocumented Thai workers.
(p.180) The Ministry of Interior officials charged with handling the influx of migrant workers decided that workers from specific countries would be employed only in specific economic sectors. Erik Cohen (1999) argues that the Thais were relegated to agriculture because of their assumed background as farmers and because they came from a tropical country and were thus expected to be able to handle the heat. Romanian workers were relegated to construction (they were later replaced by Turkish and Chinese builders). Workers from the Philippines were mainly consigned to nursing, caregiving, and domestic help (they were later joined by small numbers of Nepali, Sri Lankan, and Eastern European caregivers).
Cohen and his colleague Zeev Rosenhek, both from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, initiated the first study on migrant workers in Israel in 1995 (E. Cohen 1999). Cohen was my PhD advisor, and he recruited me as a research assistant. I was charged with organizing his research on Thai workers. I established contacts and sought permission for and arranged interviews with employers, workers, and other people with connections to Thai migrant workers and the industry. I joined Cohen on these field trips, participated in the interviews, took notes and pictures, and collected data. Between 1996 and 1998, we made dozens of trips to different agricultural communities in Israel: kibbutzim, moshavim, private farms, nurseries, and other farming operations that employed Thai migrant workers.
While we were conducting our study, the Israeli Jewish populace was gripped by a severe wave of moral panic. Multiple media reports accused Thai migrant workers of stalking protected wild animals and of systematically hunting and eating pet dogs. This surge of accusations culminated with the publication of a double-page story by journalist David Regev in Israel’s leading newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, on June 9, 1996, with an extra-large bold headline announcing: “The Target: Dogs” (Hamatarah: Klavim). The different sections of the article included a small photo of an Asian-looking man holding a knife and a text that read: “The Hunters: Special Inquiry.”
The bold subheads read: “Thai workers are not satisfied with the food provided by their employers, and so they go on hunting trips”; “As if in a military raid, they operate in small units: dog catchers, spice gatherers [melaktei tavlinim], skin removers [poshtei or], barbecue cooks, and watchers [tazpitanim]”; “They raid groves and neighborhoods, set cruel traps, slaughter man’s best friend, and feast over its flesh around the barbecue”; “Testimony: (p.181)
I saw a Thai turning a huge spit; I was horrified to realize that he was roasting a dog with its legs chopped off.”
The article explained that as complaints over the disappearance of dogs in areas where Thai migrant workers were employed amassed, the reporter and photographer began a six-month investigation. According to the article, Thai migrant workers ate “modest, meatless meals” during the week but went on hunting sprees during the weekends, trapping birds, wild animals, and domestic pets—specifically dogs. The text described an orgiastic celebration of killing, dismembering, and roasting dogs, whose flesh was consumed with large quantities of alcohol.
(p.182) The text was accompanied by five large, blurry photos, each with its own caption. The main photo was of a human figure with its head covered, holding what looked like a plastic bag and squatting by a small fire of branches and weeds, and there was a little arrow pointing at the bag. The caption read: “A recipe for dinner: Thai takes dog out of plastic bag.” Next was a picture of a miserable-looking dog whose head was trapped in a plastic container attached to a pole. The caption read “The trap: Chocolate is placed as bait in the plastic container. This stray dog managed to push his head into the container but couldn’t get it out. The dog was released by the photographer, badly injured and infested with parasites.” Finally, there was a set of three adjacent photos: the first pictured two Asian-looking men walking in a field, with the caption “The lookout”; the second showed two men who were standing under a clothesline with laundry hanging over their heads and pulling something out of a bucket, with the caption reading “The preparations”; and the third was a picture of an improvised barbecue with some pieces of unclear matter, with the caption “The leftovers: Last night the Thais feasted over the barbecue, these are the morning’s leftovers.”
In what follows, I examine the report critically for its journalistic shortcomings without making any assertions as to the integrity, professionalism, and ethics of the writer or photographer. In many ways, the article is a journalistic masterpiece: it weaves images and words into a powerful and convincing message that is not evident in the photos and is not substantiated by any additional evidence presented in the text.
There are six photos altogether: an Asian-looking man holding a knife; a human figure with a covered head squatting by a fire and holding a bag; a dog whose head is trapped in a plastic container; two Asian-looking men walking in a field; two human figures bent over a bucket; and some unrecognizable material on an improvised grill. Not one of the humans is clearly Thai, not one of images clearly involves food preparation, and none of the photos that purport to depict cooking clearly involve dog meat, or for that matter any kind of meat or even the practice of cooking. As for the dog, there is no evidence in the picture that can support the claim that it was purposefully trapped by Thai migrant workers. In fact, there is no evidence that the dog was purposefully trapped by anyone, let alone by Thai migrant workers. All in all, the photos do not provide evidence that Thai migrant workers were hunting and eating dogs. The bold headlines and text, however, weave a coherent story out of the images, convincing readers that they are observing hard evidence of Thai migrant workers hunting, butchering, cooking, and eating dogs.
(p.183) The article attracted significant public attention and media reaction and elicited heated discussions and condemnations on the radio and television. While most readers didn’t notice the article’s shortcomings, some professional commentators did point out that there was a problem with this journalistic project. On the day the article was published, the reporter and photographer were interviewed on the popular television program Erev Hadash (New Evening), where they were confronted by the host, a senior journalist, who accused them of making claims despite very little supporting evidence in the photos. The reporter responded that they had graphic pictures of the slaughtering and cooking of dogs but felt that these were too explicit and might hurt the public feelings.
The authors must have anticipated this kind of criticism because they took measures to confront it within the text itself. In a box dedicated to their methodology, with the heading “How the inquiry was conducted,” they wrote: “[We] amassed extremely disturbing photographic evidence. We didn’t publish most of it. The sights are horrifying.” Such care for the public’s feelings was unexpected considering that the same newspaper published a close-up photograph of a dismembered hand on its front page in the aftermath of a suicide bombing just a few months earlier. Moreover, the photos’ captions and vivid descriptions left little to the imagination. The journalists might have been genuine in their wish to spare the public’s feelings, but the outcome was a deceitful text. Nevertheless, despite its shortcomings, this article was seminal in cementing the image of Thai migrant workers as cruel dog-meat eaters.
During the following two years, while we were conducting our research on Thai migrant workers, many of our interviewees and people with whom I happened to discuss the study made frequent references to this article and to dog-meat eating among Thais. It is interesting to note that farmers who employed Thai workers as well as manpower agents involved in hiring Thai workers vehemently rejected these accusations. Other people, who had little or no contact with Thai workers, passionately argued that Thais did eat dogs, both in Thailand and in Israel. When I asked some members of the latter group whether they had personally seen Thais hunting or eating dogs or whether they had seen dogs eaten in Thailand, the most common response was that although they had never personally witnessed it, they knew a cousin, friend, neighbor, or friend of a friend who had. I was facing yet another “riddle of food and culture” (Harris 1998): Why were Israelis accusing Thai migrant workers of hunting and eating dogs even though this practice was denied by (p.184) the Thais and by their Israeli employers and was never substantiated by real evidence?
A disclaimer is due here. It might very well be the case that some dogs were caught in traps set by Thai migrant workers. It might also be the case that an extremely hungry Thai worker did hunt, cook, and eat a dog. However, such events have never been confirmed, and there is a huge discrepancy between the acknowledgment that such an event might have happened and the common Israeli belief that Thai migrant workers routinely and systematically kill and eat pet dogs.
While conducting the research on Thai migrant workers in Israel, I was employed as a tour guide by an Israeli travel agency to lead tours to East and Southeast Asia. Thailand was almost always included in the itinerary as a destination or as a springboard to neighboring countries. This allowed me to observe how dogs were treated in Thailand and whether they were eaten or treated as practical or potential food.
It was hard to ignore the miserable state of the dogs that I observed in Thai public and semipublic spaces. In urban Thailand, dogs were part of the street scene, laying by the stairs and thresholds of houses in the narrow sois (urban alleys), roaming the streets, and congregating in wat (Buddhist temple) yards. The dogs rarely had collars or other markings of human ownership, were skinny, and often had observable injuries, rashes, and skin diseases. They didn’t look as if they were being groomed as pets or working dogs, or for that matter as food. In fact, they looked extremely unhealthy and unappealing, and I seriously doubt that anyone would consider eating, let alone craving, their flesh.
When I inquired about their presence in temple yards, I was told that these Buddhist temples were safe havens for stray animals. Urban wats often had monkeys and sometimes horses and even elephants on their grounds. Most commonly, however, they had packs of dogs. I saw visitors to these temples giving food to the dogs, and I was told that this was a meritorious practice similar to the food alms given to Buddhist monks. Yet the dogs at the temples were as skinny and miserable as the rest of the dogs visible in urban settings. Their congregation in wat yards suggested that they were (p.185) treated badly and needed protection, but I was assured that they were threatened by neglect, disease, and hunger, not by hungry hunters.
In the countryside, dogs were used as guards; they were kept on leashes or left loose to run around at farmyards, barking loudly at passersby. They looked better fed than urban dogs, had healthier fur, and rarely had observable skin diseases. While traveling in Vietnam and China, I did observe dog merchants, dog-meat restaurants, and dog meat sold at markets, but I never saw dog-meat merchants in Thailand. Furthermore, I never saw dog meat on offer at any of the dozens of fresh-produce markets I visited in different parts of Thailand, nor did I see restaurants in Thailand that served dog meat.
The local tour guides who accompanied my tour groups in Vietnam and China often mentioned dog meat, pointed to dog meat sold at markets, and referred to restaurants that specialized in dog meat. This was a way of engaging the tourists and provoking their orientalist stereotypes and fears, amusing and horrifying them at once. This, however, was never the case in Thailand.
The only exception was the occasional mention by Thai tour guides that the Akha, one of Thailand’s ethnic groups, ate dogs (Maneeprasert 1989). Ethnic minorities, however, are considered by most ethnic Thais to be of low status (Leepreecha 2005), and the Akha are considered to be one of the most backward ethnic groups in the country (Trupp 2015). My sense was that when ethnic Thai guides pointed out that the Akha ate dog meat, they were depicting them as exotic and primitive savages, and through this distinction they defined their own ethnic group as civilized, sophisticated, modern, and Western. These guides were clearly disgusted by the idea of eating dog meat, and the fact that the inferior Akha craved this flesh made it all the more repulsive.
However, these were obviously superficial observations. But I found it very hard to locate relevant scholarly works on human-dog relations and on dog-meat eating in Thailand. I consulted anthropologist Eugene Anderson, an expert on Asian foodways, who responded: “There is nothing in the literature about Thais eating dogs, for the very good reason that they don’t do it. At least I never heard of it, and my wife and I have done a lot of work there.”4
The major exception is Stanley Tambiah’s (1969) authoritative ethnographic analysis of human-animal relations in Phraan Muan, a village in northeastern Thailand, which pays specific attention to dogs and their social status. Tambiah begins by pointing out that the dog is one of the ten animals (p.186) whose flesh is forbidden in Buddhism, the others being humans, elephants, horses, snakes, lions, tigers, leopards, bears, and hyenas. While some of these creatures are forbidden for their royal status (horse and elephant) or what they consume (hyenas), Tambiah argues that the dog is forbidden due to its proximity to human beings. While some Buddhist sources put forward that dog is man’s best friend and that eating it thus verges on cannibalism, Tambiah points out that dogs in Theravada Buddhist Thailand are tolerated but loathed. The Thais, he argues, perceive of dogs as humanlike creatures that breach two of the most fundamental human taboos: they are incestuous and they eat their own feces. He explains:
The dog is in one sense a friend of man, but it is not a “pet” as understood by the English. It is treated casually, given great license and little care. It is, in fact, an animal that arouses paradoxical attitudes which are symptomatic of its close bearing on human relationships. The dog is not edible; this is not simply a neutral attitude but a definite taboo. … This animal, though close to man, is viewed as a “low creature”; it eats feces and is therefore unclean and inedible. The dog is regarded as the incestuous animal par excellence; canine parents and children copulate. … The dog is treated as a “degraded human”; its inedibility corresponds to notions of uncleanliness and incest. … One of the strongest insults that one villager can hurl at another is to say that a dog has had intercourse with his paternal and maternal ancestors. Other animals do not figure so effectively in insulting language.
(Tambiah 1969, 435; emphasis mine)
It should be clear from Tambiah’s analysis that dogs are considered disgusting in Thailand and that eating their flesh would be unthinkable for most Thais. Tambiah’s understanding of the Thai taboo against consuming dog meat is very much in line with the attitude of Thai tour guides and other Thais with whom I discussed the practice of eating dog meat: they found it repulsive.
Beyond the scant academic literature, Thai and international newspapers have reported on the dog-meat trade in Thailand, specifically in Isan (northeast Thailand), where most Thai migrant workers in Israel come from. These reports describe a lucrative export of dog meat to Vietnam (and, to a lesser extent, southern China) but do not report that dog flesh was consumed in Thailand or by Thais. In 2013, Kate Hodal reported in the Guardian: “Every year, hundreds of thousands of pets are snatched in Thailand, then smuggled into Vietnam.”5 Peter Shadbolt, reporting for CNN, described a similar situation: “As many as 200,000 live dogs every year are smuggled from northeast (p.187) Thailand across the Mekong River destined for restaurants in Vietnam.”6 Reports of actual consumption of dog meat in Thailand, however, usually attribute the practice to Vietnamese immigrants. In 2014, New York Times correspondent Thomas Fuller explained: “Eating dog, by no means a mainstream tradition in Thai cuisine, is confined to isolated pockets of aficionados, mostly in northeastern Thailand. The practice has existed for decades, chiefly among communities of ethnic Vietnamese.”7
Even though there is ample evidence of trade in dog meat in Thailand, especially in the northeast, the meat is not consumed locally. The relatively few media reports of dog-meat eating in Thailand usually involve ethnic Vietnamese, who in many cases are also involved in exporting dog meat to Vietnam. These reports further support my argument that dog meat is practically taboo in Thailand, that it is rarely, if at all, eaten by ethnic Thais, and that it can hardly be described as part of the Thai foodscape. Thais shun dog meat and find it revolting. Thus, the assumption made by many Israelis that Thai migrant workers were simply maintaining their original food habits by eating dog meat in Israel has very little to do with actual Thai eating patterns.
Working in Israel
In this section, I discuss some of the regulations governing the employment of Thai migrant workers in Israel and the implementation of these regulations by Israeli employers. While this section, unlike the rest of the chapter, does not focus on the foodways of Thai migrant workers, it describes the administrative and practical settings that define the working conditions of these workers. This is crucial for my argument that the allegation that Thai workers hunt and eat dogs is the cultural solution devised by Israelis to handle the ethical dilemmas posed by the exploitative nature of the employment of migrant workers in Israel.
When the Israeli government decided to allow migrant workers to enter the country in the early 1990s, it was determined that each worker would be granted a two-year working visa that could be renewed twice, for a total of up to six years. It was also decided that it would be possible to apply for a renewal only in the country of origin—that is, workers would have to leave Israel after two years, fly home, and apply for a renewal, which would be processed within three months. This turned out to be complicated and costly (p.188) for workers, who had to purchase two extra tickets within their six-year working period and remain unemployed (and unpaid) for three months each time they applied for a visa renewal. Israeli farmers were also unhappy with this arrangement, which entailed many potential complications and mishaps and also meant that workers were absent for long periods of time, leaving their farms short of manpower. According to the 2015 edition of the “Foreign Workers’ Rights Handbook,” published by the Israeli Immigration Authority, this arrangement was replaced by a one-year working visa that could be extended in Israel for up to sixty-three months.8
According to this official text, migrant workers in Israel were entitled to the minimum wage, 4,300 shekels (roughly US$1,200) in 2015, for 186 working hours per month. Like all employees in Israel, they were entitled to health insurance, social security, and other social benefits and extra payment for overtime. The handbook stated that it was illegal for employers to withhold their employees’ passports and other documents. Visas, however, were always allocated to employers according to their specific needs, making migrant workers dependent on their employers.
The workers were entitled to “suitable housing,” defined as “at least 4 square meters sleeping space per worker, no more than 6 workers in one room, personal cupboards and bedding for each worker, heating and ventilation, reasonable lighting and electric outlets in each room, hot and cold water in the bathroom, kitchen and showers; sinks, kitchen counters and cupboards, burners, refrigerator, table and chairs, a washing machine for 6 workers. There must be reasonable access to the living quarters as well as to bathrooms.”9 This paragraph is the result of a grim reality and thus calls for some elaboration.
First, the instructions are so precisely detailed because, as Cohen, Rosenhek, and I saw while conducting our study in the late 1990s, and as I often observed in the years that followed, quite a few Israeli employers did not provide even these bare essentials and had to be forced to comply with the minimum standards. Over the years, both Israeli and international media outlets reported on cases where employers subjected Thai workers to abysmal living conditions.10
Second, these rules actually define very basic and crowded living conditions, allowing up to six people to share a 24-square-meter room. This means that a 48-square-meter two-bedroom mobile home, built to accommodate two adults, maybe with a child or two, can legally house twelve adult Thai workers. So even when employers did follow the rules, the living conditions were very basic, if not miserable. Large numbers of mainly male adults were (p.189) crowded into dilapidated mobile homes (called caravans in Israel) and farming structures, such as sheds and chicken coops, converted into low quality, badly maintained dwellings with improvised electricity, showers, and toilets. Many of the kitchens and dining areas that I saw were of the open-air variety: a few tables and chairs, a fridge, a stove, and a sink in the yard next to the dwellings.
Furthermore, according to the official handbook, Israeli employers are entitled to deduct up to 25 percent of their workers’ salaries for “housing and related expenses.”11 The handbook clearly stresses that “this is not an automatic deduction and the employer may only deduct actual expenses” and quotes a maximum deduction of 500 shekels, about 12 percent of the minimum wage.12 However, during the research we conducted in the late 1990s, we were asked by many Thai workers why 25 percent of their salary was knocked off. When we asked the employers, they referred us to their accountants, who quoted the above-mentioned rule of deducting up to 25 percent for basic arrangements. In most cases, a flat rate of 25 percent was simply subtracted from the paychecks with no reference to the employers’ actual expenses. Thus, in some cases, twelve Thais housed in a cramped and poorly maintained caravan would pay over 13,000 shekels (around US$3,700) of rent and related expenses per month. This was five to ten times the market rental price for mobile homes of this size (though the maintenance level of migrant workers’ dwellings was often so low that no one would have rented them even for less than a tenth of this sum). In fact, for this price they could probably rent a well-maintained six-bedroom villa.
Another disturbing economic issue was the loan most Thai workers needed to pay for their initial airfare and paperwork, which was processed for a fee by Thai and Israeli manpower agencies. Our interviewees reported taking out loans of US$5,000–10,000 in the late 1990s that incurred yearly interest rates of 50–100 percent.13 These loans were usually from Thai loan sharks who were purportedly connected to Thai criminal organizations, and the Thai migrant workers were terrified of the prospect of being unable to pay back their loans and interest, fearing that the lenders would hurt their family members.
The Thai migrant workers were practically enslaved by these loans, which took two to three years to repay, but only if they worked a substantial number of extra hours. In fact, most Thai workers reported working twelve hours a day, seven days a week, at least until they repaid their loans. The employers, many of whom knew about these debts, told us that their Thai employees (p.190) insisted on working so many hours. One of them explained that if he didn’t allow his Thai employees to work unlimited extra hours, they would leave. Many Thais worked as many as 370 hours per month, roughly twice the number of hours stipulated by the law.
The main reason Thai migrant workers came to Israel was financial: they wanted a chance to earn more money so that they could improve the economic lot and future prospects of their families. Workers and their families were willing to go through some hard times. When a child, spouse, or parent leaves for a very long period of time, there are substantial emotional, practical, and financial consequences. The families back in Thailand were expecting, and often depending on, remittances, and they put heavy pressure on the workers to earn more money to send home.
As a consequence, Thai migrant workers employed in Israeli agriculture were confined to the countryside and to their employers’ farms, where many toiled twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Some 25 percent of their salary was deducted from their paychecks for housing, despite the cramped and poorly maintained quality of their dwellings. Many of them spent as much as 50 percent of their salary to repay the loans they had taken out to come to Israel. Internal and external pressures to send more money home further aggravated their financial situation.
According to a 2015 Human Rights Watch report titled “A Raw Deal: Abuse of Thai Workers in Israel’s Agricultural Sector,” Thai migrant workers “were paid salaries significantly below the legal minimum wage, forced to work long hours in excess of the legal maximum, subjected to unsafe working conditions, and denied their right to change employers. … Thai workers were housed in makeshift and inadequate accommodations. Only workers in one of the 10 groups Human Rights Watch interviewed were able to show us salary slips, and these were written in Hebrew, and did not accurately reflect the hours that workers had worked.”14
It is important to bear in mind that Thai migrant workers chose to work in Israel of their own free will. It is also important to remember that the structural abuse of migrant workers is universal and shaped by global forces, that Israel is probably not the worst place in the world for migrant workers, and that Israeli employers are probably not the worst employers. In fact, many of the Thai workers I met over the years managed to create warm and intimate Thai-style patron-client relations with their employers (an extremely interesting topic that is not directly relevant to this chapter) that improved their financial, material, and emotional conditions. It is also true that for most (p.191) Thais, working in Israel eventually turned out to be profitable. However, working in Israel was also physically grueling and emotionally exhausting.
The Foodways of Thai Migrant Workers in Israel
Most of the Thai migrant workers in Israel come from Isan, in northeast Thailand. Located on the Khorat Plateau, Isan is the most arid region of Thailand, with substantially lower amounts of rainfall than other parts of the country. It also features distinctive wet and dry seasons, receiving very little rain for six months a year. These conditions make farming, and specifically subsistence rice cultivation, more difficult and precarious than it is in other regions of the country. Consequently, Isan has long been the country’s poorest region and the main exporter of both domestic and international migrant workers.
Isan is also a culturally distinct region that has more in common with Laos than with the rest of Thailand. Most prominently, the language spoken in the region is a Lao dialect that is distinct from Thai (though these languages are mutually intelligible). While the ethnic identity of Isan dwellers is a debated political and academic subject, the Thai (by nationality) migrant workers we interviewed in Israel were visibly pleased when we asked them whether they were Lao and tended to respond that they were Lao or Lao-Thai.
Specifically relevant to this chapter is the Isan’s distinct cuisine, which is defined, first and foremost, by the use of khao niew—“sticky” or glutinous rice—which is different from the long-grain rice common in other parts of Thailand. Israeli employers we interviewed in the late 1990s often mentioned that each of their Thai employees was entitled to 25 kilos of long-grain rice per month. Israeli farmers were astonished by the amount of rice their workers consumed and often noted in awe that the workers would eat rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They added that their employees also consumed sticky rice, which was not included in the employment agreement, so the workers had to purchase it. At that time, sticky rice was imported by only a few specialized shops and was quite expensive. Over the years, grocery stores and supermarkets in farming regions started selling sticky rice as well as other Isan and Thai products, and prices dropped. Khao niew, which is cooked in specific bamboo and metal steamers and carried to work for lunch (p.192) in special bamboo baskets (these utensils are now available in many local grocery shops), has become the norm in these regions in recent years.
While rice, sticky or long-grained, is the centerpiece of Thai meals and the main source of calories and nutrients, its culinary role is that of a white canvas on which the meal is drawn. While Thai cuisine is generally aromatic and strong tasting, Isan food is by far the spiciest in the country. The compelling colors, flavors, and smells of Isan food are achieved with liberal use of seasoning and aromatic agents, including ginger, galangal root, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, several kinds of basil, and a large variety of chilies.
Since Isan cuisine evolved in a poor region where farming is limited to roughly six months per year, it makes use of ingredients that are rarely used in other parts of Thailand, and this is especially true for animal products. Isan cuisine uses the flesh, blood, and internal organs of a large variety of wild and domesticated mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, and aquatic creatures. Professor Erik Cohen, who spent many years conducting ethnographic research in Thailand, told me that during the dry season, subsistence farmers in Isan shift into hunting and gathering mode. They hunt, set traps in the jungle and in fallow farm lands, fish and trap aquatic animals in natural and manmade waterways, look for edible insects, and gather the leaves, roots, seeds, nuts, shoots, buds, and fruits of domesticated and wild plants.
When Thai migrant workers first arrived in Israel, most of the essential Isan spices and ingredients were not available. Many of the workers planted gardens next to their dwellings and grew their own chilies, basil, coriander, garlic, onions, spring onions, and, at times, peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants. Another plant that I have often seen in Thai kitchen gardens in Israel is the papaya, which is usually harvested green for the preparation of som tam (papaya salad). These kitchen gardens can be found wherever Thai workers reside.
Ginger, and to a lesser extent galangal and kaffir lime leaves, which are hard to cultivate in Israel, can be purchased in Israeli markets, supermarkets, and shops that specialize in imported food. Another extremely important taste agent is nam plaa (Thai fish sauce), which is also found in these specialized shops and, increasingly, in Israeli supermarkets. These imported and sometimes rare ingredients are not cheap, but they are essential to Thai cooking, so the workers had no choice but to purchase them.
Thai migrant workers often had unlimited access to the fruits and vegetables produced by their employers. Israeli agroindustry, however, is often monocrop based, so the Thai workers in one region could have as many (p.193) cucumbers as they liked (as was the case in Ahituv, a moshav specializing in cucumbers—where the Thai employees told us that they wouldn’t touch cucumbers any more), while those in another region could have as many peppers as they could eat, but nothing else. Thus, in most instances, they had to purchase at least some fruits and vegetables.
While some of the spices and vegetables mentioned so far were considered exotic and rare in Israel, meat was clearly the most controversial food item on Thai migrant workers’ menu.
I have shown in previous chapters that meat is associated with physical and social qualities such as strength, potency, masculinity, wealth, and power. Furthermore, food taboos are almost exclusively focused on the flesh of animals (Fessler and Navarrete 2003; Fiddes 2004). This is especially true for the Jewish kashrut system, which is centered on meat and is extremely important in Israeli private and public spheres. In his book on the social meanings of meat, Fiddes argues that meat is “a natural symbol”—that is, “a natural metaphor for the social experience” (2004, 2). It is little wonder, then, that the kinds of meat consumed by Thai workers, a non-Jewish group of newcomers that were seen as exotic and primitive, attracted more attention and criticism than any other food item they ate.
While Thais eat relatively small amounts of animal protein, many of their dishes include some animal flesh, which significantly contributes to the taste of the food. Thai migrant workers in Israel, despite their limited income and high level of debt, were still eager to add animal protein to their diet. They devised four strategies for the acquisition of meat: farming poultry, purchasing meat, accepting meat leftovers, and stealing and hunting.
Many of the Thai dwellings I visited had improvised coops where chickens were raised for eggs and meat. This was rarely mentioned by their employers, as chicken coops are an integral part of the Israeli agroindustry (although poultry farming without veterinary inspection is illegal in Israel). Employers and other commenters mentioned instead that Thai workers farmed fighting cocks. Illegal but widely practiced in Thailand, this activity was criticized by (p.194) Israelis for being cruel. Nevertheless, Israeli employers generally accepted cockfighting and allowed it to continue. Poultry farming enhanced the Thai workers’ limited culinary and leisure options at no direct cost to the farmers, which might be the reason it was tolerated. However, the fact that Thai workers slaughtered animals for their meat and engaged in cockfighting only contributed to the negative and savage image Israelis had of them.
This was probably the most obvious way of acquiring meat in Israel, but it was not necessarily the most accessible method for Thai migrant workers. First, meat was relatively expensive, and certainly more expensive than most other food products. With their limited incomes and high debts, Thai workers couldn’t afford a lot of meat. Second, shopping for food required means of transportation, which was a significant obstacle for the Thai workers. The Israeli periphery is badly serviced by public transportation, and Thai migrant workers in Israel rarely owned cars. Thus, most could shop for food only when their employers provided transportation. While I occasionally met Thai migrant workers at fresh-produce markets, which tend to attract significant numbers of migrant workers of various nationalities, only rarely did I have such encounters at supermarkets. Some employers reported taking their workers to shop at fresh-produce markets on a regular basis. These farmers, however, were the exception that proved the rule: shopping for meat was inaccessible to most Thai workers.
In the late 1990s, we were told by employers and workers that an Israeli entrepreneur, who had discovered the captive audience of Thai workers, was driving around in a van stocked with Thai products, such as sticky rice and fish sauce, as well as different kinds of meat, which he sold for a hefty profit. Interestingly, he had pork on offer. Pork was quite hard to find in Israel at the time, and this was probably the only source of pork available to the Thais. As far as I know, this entrepreneur is not active anymore, probably because Thai products (and pork) have become more accessible.
But even when Thais purchased meat, things could get messy. In the spring of 1997, I read a newspaper report about Thai migrant workers employed in a large nursery who ate a donkey. I contacted their Israeli employer and asked if we could meet him and his employees. He suggested that we come immediately, hoping that we might provide some advice to him. The next morning, we drove to the nursery, located in the occupied (p.195) Palestinian Territories not far from Jerusalem. When we arrived, the Israeli employer, a Modern Orthodox settler, told us that he had discovered that his Thai employees had purchased a donkey from neighboring Bedouins and slaughtered and cooked it. He was so angry that he was thinking of having the employees deported. Cohen pointed out that the Thai employees were not Jews and asked him what was wrong with eating a donkey. The employer, who was distressed to begin with, did not like the question, but he agreed that we could talk to the Thai workers first and then discuss the issue with him.
The Thai workers were on their lunch break and were visibly upset. They were very glad when they found out that Cohen could speak both Thai and Lao, and they recounted their ordeal to us. They noted that there were no donkeys in Isan. In fact, they used the Thai word ma, “horse,” rather than la, “donkey,” as they didn’t even know how to refer to the animal. They explained that there were many donkeys in the area and that they had asked a Bedouin who was working at the farm if the animals were edible. He responded positively (even though donkey flesh is not consumed in the Middle East) and offered to sell them one. He quoted a price of 600 shekels (ten times the going price for a donkey), took the money, and provided an animal. The Thai workers realized that it was an extremely muscular beast, so they decided to strangle rather than slaughter it. Slaughtering the donkey, they explained, would toughen its meat (probably due to the secretion of adrenaline). They then cleaned and carved the donkey, but when they tried to cook it, they found that no matter what cooking technique or seasoning they employed, the meat was too tough to chew and had an unpleasant aroma. Eventually, they had to throw it away.
When their employer found out that they had killed and cooked a donkey, he was furious and threatened to deport them. This left them feeling victimized by everyone: first, their Bedouin colleague had lied to them by saying that donkeys were edible and charged them a huge amount of money for an animal he knew they would not be able to eat, and now they were facing an extremely severe punishment, deportation, even though they could not understand what they had done wrong by cooking a donkey they had paid for.
We returned to the Israeli employer and had a long conversation with him, trying to explain to him that the whole incident was a mistake. We pointed out what the consequences of deportation might be for his employees (who would still have to repay their loans even though their source of income (p.196) would be gone), and he was convinced to postpone his decision. We were getting ready to leave when he told us that ever since these events had taken place (a few days earlier), his Bedouin employees refused to work alongside the Thais, and he asked us if we would be willing to talk to the Bedouins. I return to this conversation in the chapter’s conclusion.
Thai migrant workers were employed in all segments of Israeli agriculture, including farms that produced milk and dairy products, eggs, meat, and fish. Some larger employers (especially kibbutzim) farm vegetables and fruits in addition to engaging in different kinds of husbandry. Thais employed on these farms often had access to free and practically unlimited amounts of meat. This, however, turned out to be a double-edged sword when it came to their public image, as Thais became seen as people who “eat everything.”
Quite a few poultry famers told us that they let their Thai employees help themselves to invalid, sick, dying, or dead birds, which could not be sold. In my village, I often witnessed Thai workers slaughtering and cleaning such birds for their own consumption. However, the very same employers who allowed and at times encouraged this practice—we were once told “A satiated Thai is a satisfied Thai” (Thailandi saveah hu Thailandi merutze)—were often visibly repulsed and verbally disgusted by the idea of eating such ailing or dying creatures.
At first, I found this attitude bizarre. After all, these farmers were part of a cruel and exploitative agroindustry, farming hundreds of thousands of creatures destined for violent deaths at slaughterhouses. I gradually learned, however, that animal farmers tend to distance themselves from the act of killing, which is done elsewhere and by other people, so they considered themselves life givers rather than life takers. This was in line with Carol Adams’s (1990, 1998) arguments that modern individuals distance themselves physically and emotionally from the killing of the animals they eat and actively hide the relationship between the meat they consume and the living creatures that were killed to produce it. Animal flesh is processed and packaged so that it doesn’t look like an animal product any more. Labeling animal flesh “beef,” “poultry,” and “pork” rather than “cow,” “chicken,” or “pig” is also a mechanism of distancing and concealing.
By killing chicken with their hands, often in sight of their employers, the Thai workers were demolishing these symbolic barriers that protected their (p.197) employers from facing the violent death they were inflicting on the millions of animals they farmed. The employers’ disgusted reactions reestablished the barriers between culture and nature, marking the Thai employees as cruel and savage and relegating them to the other side of the wall.
Two cases that concerned cows are especially interesting. In one case, a cowshed manager at a Modern Orthodox kibbutz told us that he gave his Thai workers a dead calf, which they proceeded to consume. Even though he was the one who had offered the dead animal to his employees, he was clearly disgusted by the act. The religious context only exacerbated the paradox, as eating the flesh of dead animals (that is, animals that have not been slaughtered ritually) is strictly forbidden in Judaism. Moreover, eating dead animals is illegal in Israel due to sanitary considerations. The employer was disgusted by a practice that he himself had initiated. He did not explain why he had offered the dead calf to his Thai employees, but the fact that he had breached both religious and legal prohibitions in doing so suggested that it was not only about offering them a treat. It seemed to me that he was following the “a satiated Thai is a satisfied Thai” principle, treating his employees to something that came at no cost to his operation.
In another case, a dairy farmer told us that his employees would ask for cow placentas to make soup. His expression when he told us about this exposed his utter disdain for the practice. Eating embryos and placentas is a practical taboo in Israel, perhaps because of the Jewish prohibition on consuming ever min hachai (the organs of a living creature), which defines edible flesh as only that of a properly slaughtered animal. It is universally forbidden by Judaism to consume organs from a living creature. This is one of the Seven Laws of Noah, which apply to the “children of Noah”—that is, not only to Jews but also to all human beings, Thais included. The employer gave the placentas to his Thai employees, most likely as a treat that cost him nothing, even though he was breaching a major taboo of his own culture. His repulsion was totally directed toward his Thai employees, even though he was the one responsible for the breach of a taboo that does not exist in Thailand.
The Thai employees later told us that placenta soup is a sought-after dish in Isan, considered nourishing and invigorating. Human and animal (mainly cow) placentas are also used in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries because of their regenerative properties. Placentas are rich with “hormones, growth factors, immune molecules, lipids, and nucleic acids, … [which] could turn out to have particular clinical applications” (Glausser 2009, 15). Placentas are also used in stem cell research, which is among the (p.198) most sophisticated fields in medicine. While the Israeli employer insinuated that the practice of consuming placentas was barbaric, relegating his Thai employees to the realm of savages, stem cell research is thriving in Israel, and cosmetics that use placentas are widely available.15
While some Thai migrant workers did have access to free animal flesh, most of them did not. Considering their limited income and the economic pressures they faced, it is not surprising that some of them might have resorted to stealing animals for meat. While conducting our study, we heard rumors about Thai workers stealing and eating animals. Several events of theft were reported in the media over the years, and I will address some of them shortly. However, just like with the stories of Thai workers eating dog meat, these rumors and reports were usually vague, and the texts often questioned and even contradicted the bold headlines. While I can’t argue that Thai migrant workers in Israel never stole animals for food, there is little evidence that they did.
Not all stealing was viewed with the same disdain. Stealing poultry, for example, was not perceived as a serious offense. Stealing chicken was a famous part of the Palmach mythology (see chapter 2). When palmachniks, sabra elite who fought for Israel’s independence and suffered heavy casualties, stole chicken, it was tolerated and later mythicized. Thai migrant workers were certainly not seen as palmachniks, and it was problematic and aggravating when they stole chicken, but it did not breach cultural norms. Even when we were told about incidences of Thai workers stealing larger and more expensive animals, such as calves or lambs, the acts were perceived as illegal but not as barbaric savagery, since these animals are considered perfectly edible in Israel.
Things became more complicated when Thais stole animals that were defined as pets rather than livestock, and even more so when the animals belonged to educational and therapeutic programs. An extreme case that I investigated involved two Thai workers employed by a kibbutz who broke into a pinat hai (small zoo) that operated within the kibbutz’s informal education system, where children with special needs had “personal pets” that they were individually accountable for as a means of encouraging responsibility and dealing with their emotional difficulties. The Thais admitted to stealing several animals, mainly rabbits, and eating them. The kids were (p.199) traumatized and overwhelmed with grief, and the outraged kibbutz members made sure that the Thai workers were deported from the country. I read about this event in a newspaper and drove to the kibbutz. I couldn’t talk to the Thais, who had already been deported, but one of the kibbutz members involved in the case told me in rage that the Thais “didn’t even understand how terrible what they did was.”
A year earlier, I had visited a zoo in Thailand with my toddler son and a friend who had been born in Isan but who had lived in Bangkok for many years and traveled to quite a few other countries. The reactions that my friend had to the animals—mainly large African mammals, such as zebras, giraffes, and African elephants, which he had never seen before—were very different from those of my son. One of my friend’s first questions was whether the animal was edible: “Kin dai mai?” When the answer was positive, his interest grew, and he spent more time watching the animals and asking questions about them. When the answer was negative, he lost interest and went to the next exhibit. For him, it seemed, animals were food, and thus the only animals that were interesting to him were those that could be eaten. Did the Thai workers who broke into the kibbutz zoo understand that they were stealing from a zoo or, for that matter, that the animals they had stolen had specific emotional value? Did they understand the concept of a zoo at all? I can only imagine the distress these workers must have felt at being deported over what they probably perceived as a minor breach of the rules. For the Israelis who read about the event in the newspaper, however, it was yet another proof of Thai migrant workers’ cruelty and savagery.
A few cases of animal theft by Thai migrant workers were reported in the media. One article, with the headline “Thai Migrant Workers Ate a Donkey,” reported that two young donkeys had disappeared from a backyard in a moshav in the south of Israel. The moshav secretary, who was interviewed for the article, explained that a Bedouin working on a neighboring farm said that he saw some Thai workers beating the donkeys to death and then carving and cooking them. The secretary searched the Thais’ caravan and found some meat in a plastic bag that was “presumably the donkeys’ meat.”
Just like the article on dog hunting, there was a huge gap between the bold headlines and the actual story. In rural southern Israel, where I have been living for ten years now, Bedouins are regularly accused of any theft that occurs and, for that matter, of any criminal or otherwise negative behavior that takes place. Accusing a Bedouin of stealing the disappearing donkeys would have been the obvious thing to do, both because they are usually (p.200) accused of any theft and because Bedouins do own donkeys. In this case, the usual suspect became the accuser and managed to convince the Jewish employers that the Thai workers were the culprits. The article does not state at any point that its only actual piece of evidence, the plastic bag of meat, was never positively identified as donkey meat. In fact, the only “proof” offered was the secretary’s argument that it was “presumably the donkeys’ meat.” Most readers, however, were sufficiently persuaded that Thais steal animals for their flesh and eat donkey meat despite the fact that it is tough and tastes disgusting.
A 2012 news report with the headline “Youth admits: Robbed Thais who ate his duck” recounts how a sixteen-year-old boy from a moshav in southern Israel broke into an apartment where Thai migrant workers lived and stole some 600 shekels (US$160).16 When questioned by the police, he confessed and claimed it was an act of revenge against the Thais because they had stolen and eaten his pet duck a few days earlier.
Just like with the other media reports, there was a gap between the headlines and the actual article. No evidence was provided to substantiate the claim that the Thais actually stole or ate the duck. In fact, according to the report, “the Thai workers were interrogated for stealing pets and released.” The claim could have been, and probably was, an excuse invented by the youth, just like the one made by the Bedouin mentioned in the previous case. The point is that the bold headlines shaped the context and mindset of the readers, most of whom did not make the effort to consider the discrepancy between the headlines and the text. Similar reports have appeared in the media every few months since the mid-1990s, reminding Israeli readers that Thai migrant workers have strange and cruel food habits that Israelis should find repulsive: they steal pets, kill them, and consume their flesh.
Farmers in Isan regularly hunt, trap, and fish to supplement their protein supply (Somnasang, Moreno, and Chusil 1998; Setalaphruk and Price 2007). Early in the research period, we realized that migrant workers from Isan maintained their foodways as much as they could in Israel. Rice was a staple, and they cooked their food according to Thai and Isan recipes, using Thai spices, herbs, and condiments that they farmed or purchased. They also turned to what for them was an integral part of rural life—hunting small game.
(p.201) In fact, it was hunting and not the consumption of dog meat that first attracted the attention of Israeli media to Thai migrant workers’ foodways. Israeli Jews very rarely hunt, and hunting is usually viewed negatively. Jews of the Diaspora rarely hunted, probably because game could not be slaughtered according to Halachic laws and was therefore not kosher. Moreover, the violent nature of hunting and the accompanying meat lust contradicted the norms and religious propensities of Diaspora Jews. In modern Israel, part of the Zionist and modernist agendas is the revival of the land, left barren for millennia, and its fauna and flora, which were perceived of as neglected and even destroyed by its non-Jewish dwellers (Naveh and Dan 1973; Yiftachel and Segal 1998). The Society for the Protection of Nature is one of Israel’s most effective NGOs, and its campaign to protect wildflowers is considered the most successful educational campaign in the country’s history (Furst 2012). Indeed, Israel has been described recently as “the first vegan nation,” with 10 to 15 percent of Israelis defining themselves vegetarian or vegan and a similar number of people considering the option.17
Up until the arrival of Thai migrant workers, hunting in Israel was mainly associated with Bedouin and Druze—Palestinian subgroups that Israeli Jews generally identify with bravery and ruthlessness, attributes of the noble savage. The fact that the Thais hunted only supported such perceptions. It is little wonder, then, that Thai hunting elicited negative media attention and public response. However, just like with the other meat-obtaining strategies described so far, I quickly realized that the media reports were problematic. I found that employers and other relevant agencies were ambivalent when it came to the hunting practices of Thai migrant workers. In fact, in some cases, they were supportive and even enthusiastic.
In a visit to a Modern Orthodox kibbutz, the “Thai coordinator” (ha’ahra’i al hatailandim) recounted how he had dealt with the large number of wild rabbits that troubled the kibbutz lettuce fields: “We brought all of our Thais, as well as those of two neighboring kibbutzim, and in a few hours they cleaned the fields out. They walked in a line holding bags and were so quick. … None of the rabbits got away.” He said that he didn’t ask the Thais what they did with the rabbits they seized, but it was obvious that the animals were eaten.
Despite the Orthodox Jewish framework of the kibbutz, he wasn’t disturbed by the idea that his employees consumed nonkosher meat. In fact, he was the employer that coined the phrase “A satiated Thai is a satisfied Thai,” and he generally displayed a functional attitude when it came to his Thai (p.202) employees. Despite the biblical prohibition on work on the Sabbath and the requirement to grant a day of rest to “your slave, ox, donkey, and any of your livestock, as well as the sojourner within your gates” (Deuteronomy 5:14), this employer gave no such relief to his workers. He defended himself by pointing out, “the Thais are not my slaves, or my oxen or donkeys, or the sojourners within my gates—they are Thais.” In his view, the Thai migrant workers were not part of Jewish social world.
Another employer reported that once a week his Thai employees and the Thais employed by his neighbors would gather by his cowshed and use slingshots to shoot down pigeons that fed on the grains supplied to the cows. He pointed out the Thais were “slingshot masters” (alufim be’rugatkot) and added that this organized hunt helped lower his expenses by preventing the pigeons from stealing the cows’ feed.
By contrast, I came across an action taken by an employee of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) that caught me by surprise. The INPA is the government agency responsible for the protection of nature and endangered species. The agency’s officers monitor hunting, and in that role, they have arrested numerous Thais accused of poaching.18 On November 24, 1994, journalist Zvi Alush reported in the daily Yediot Ahronot that the agency’s officer responsible for the Arava Valley had published a leaflet in the Thai language requesting that Thai migrant workers hunt three kinds of birds that were harming local farming. The leaflet, which had the title ochlei hatulim vetziporim (cat and bird eaters), was later denounced by an INPA spokesperson. A Thai worker interviewed by Alush confirmed that hunting birds was common in Thailand, but he insisted that Thai workers were warned against hunting in Israel and refrained from the practice. He added: “This is quite confusing, [hunting is] sometimes allowed and sometimes forbidden.” Indeed, supportive reactions by employers and the encouragement to hunt specific kinds of wildlife by the authorities responsible for controlling hunting conveyed a mixed message and led Thai workers to engage in hunting despite the fact that it is technically illegal.
Over the years, it became clear that the hunting practices of Thai migrant workers in Israel posed a real threat to Israeli wildlife. One major problem was that their very effective traps were designed to catch any creature, regardless of whether it had a protected status. Both education and law enforcement were employed to deal with this problem, and the Israeli government even engaged the help of the Thai embassy.19 Yet despite the substantial damage it caused, Thai hunting became a secondary issue and did not attract a lot of (p.203) attention or criticism. It was the consumption of dog meat that became the focus of Israeli media and public attention in the late 1990s.
Thai migrant workers in Israel farmed poultry, purchased different kinds of meat, received meat leftovers from their employers, and stole and hunted a wide range of animals for meat. Though some of the culinary practices of Thai workers were tolerated by their Israeli employers, and while some accusations that the Thais engaged in culinary taboos were bogus, my findings support the argument that Thai migrant workers in Israel routinely transgressed Israeli Jewish culinary norms. I also realized that among Israeli Jews, none of these offenses were as disturbing as the consumption of dog meat. However, Thai workers did not eat dogs. While I cannot account for every Thai migrant worker or every animal caught in Thai traps, I can say with confidence that dog meat was not part of the diet of Thai migrant workers.
Thai migrant workers and their Israeli employers vehemently rejected the accusations of dog-meat consumption. There were good reasons for both parties to deny these accusations even if they had been true, but their passionate denials are important components of my analysis, regardless of their veracity. My observations, however, supported the claims made by Israeli employers that their Thai workers liked dogs as companions, groomed and petted their employers’ dogs, and often had their own pet dogs.
In the 1996 article on Thai dog hunting analyzed at the beginning of the chapter, the journalist Regev reported: “Interesting phenomenon: some Thai workers adopt puppies and play with them affectionately. In the first few months [of their lives], they serve as guard dogs, but when they grow up, they end their lives on the grill.” Regev offered no supporting evidence for this assertion. My observations confirm that many Thai workers owned dogs that accompanied them to work and returned with them to their dwellings in the evenings. Just like in Thailand, Thai migrant workers fed their dogs with their own leftovers. These dogs became important companions for the Thai workers during their long and often lonely years of working abroad. When I moved with my family to a rural community, we adopted a puppy from of a litter born to a dog owned by a Thai worker. He took good care of the mother and puppies and made an effort to ensure that all the puppies were adopted. I saw him with his dogs over the span of a few years, and when he left Israel, the dogs were given to other Thai workers. These observations may be (p.204) anecdotal, but they are in line with what many employers told me, further supporting my argument that Thai workers were generally fond of dogs as companions and did not perceive of them as food.
Media reports of Thai workers eating dog meat that have been published over the years demonstrate the pattern I observed in Regev’s article: they feature bold headlines proclaiming that Thai migrant workers stole, kidnapped, trapped, butchered, or ate dogs, but their vague text fails to substantiate the claim that dog meat was eaten by Thai workers.
One such headline, “Thais Skewered Dalmatian Dog with Iron Spike,” was accompanied by the subheading: “Naama [a moshav in the Jordan Valley] resident released his dog in the vicinity of the workers’ dwelling area. But the hungry Thais had a different use for it.”20 In the article, journalist Efrat Weiss reports that in December 2004, a dog was found speared in the Thai dwelling area of the moshav, “apparently intended for food.” An image of a Dalmatian with an iron spike lodged into its back accompanies the text. The image contains no reference to Thai workers, to a butchering process, to the moshav, or even to Israel. The reporter does not explain why an owner would release his dog in the workers’ dwelling area. The article states that “the Thais [130 of them lived on this moshav at the time] are the ones suspected of spearing the dog with the intention of eating it later,” but this accusation is not substantiated by any forensic or journalistic evidence, and the story is quite incoherent. For instance, why would an owner release his dog near Thai housing if “everyone knows that Thais hunt and eat dogs”? And if the Thai workers were planning to eat the dog, why did they spear it rather than slaughter it, and why was it left in the open rather than hidden or processed for later consumption? The combination of headlines and image, however, turns an unsubstantiated suspicion into an unquestionable fact.
In another report of the same event, Israeli dwellers of the moshav told two reporters, “The Thais raise chickens and the dogs attack them [the chickens] and are then caught by the Thais.”21 A neighbor who was asked by the Dalmatian’s owner to rescue the dog “from an attempted poisoning,” purportedly carried out by Thai workers, is quoted as saying: “The [Israeli] farmers are imprisoned by the Thais. … Their livelihood depends on them, so they turn a blind eye.” The article ignores the question of why the Thais would poison an animal meant for consumption. This article tells an alternative, more logical version of the story: A Dalmatian owned by a local resident either was let loose or ran away and got into an area where other local residents, Thai workers, were raising chickens. This was not the first time local (p.205) dogs attacked chickens owned by the Thais, and the Thais protected their poultry from the attacker, first by trying to poison the aggressor and eventually by spearing it. This version is still just speculation because no evidence is provided that definitively involves the Thais in the killing. In fact, another plausible version would be that the dog was killed as the result of a dispute between neighbors. This was suggested in some of the readers’ comments, and it should make sense to anyone who has lived in a small rural community, where dogs can be a source of major arguments between neighbors, some of which lead to conflict and even violence.
Even though the second report suggested that the dog had been killed because it attacked the Thais’ chickens and not because the workers were after its meat, the subhead aligned with the hegemonic narrative: “Horror in Naama: A Dalmatian dog speared on an iron spike was found in the Thai dwelling area. Suspect taken for interrogation ‘Whomever did this could spear a human being.’” While the report refrains from accusing the Thais of killing the dog for its meat, the headline insinuates that their cruelty toward dogs could lead to violence toward humans. According to this prevailing narrative, the Thai workers were barbaric subhumans and were to be feared and distrusted by Israelis.
A similar article, published in 2009, with the headline “Suspicion: Workers Hunt Dozens of Dogs,” begins as follows:
Oz [immigration police] inspectors faced a terrible sight in the yard of a house in moshav Amioz in the western Negev, where Thai workers reside. They discovered dozens of skulls, seemingly from dogs. The inspectors contacted the Nature and Parks Authority, which launched a joint investigation. Some of the skulls were taken for inspection. If it is determined that these are the remains of dogs, the findings will be passed on to the Ministry of the Protection of Environment, and the punishment could be imprisonment. If it turns out, however, that these are the remains of jackals, foxes, or other animals, the illegal hunters will be handled by the Nature and Parks Authority, which may fine and even deport them.22
The possibility that these were the skulls of edible animals or that the Thais might have had nothing to do with them was not mentioned in the report, leaving readers convinced that the Thais must have done something cruel to dogs or other animals.
Using the term “suspicion” in headlines is a solution employed by some reporters or editors who are trying to maintain balance. This allows them to attract the attention of readers by suggesting in the headline that Thai workers (p.206) eat Israeli dogs while maintaining a (limited) measure of journalistic integrity by reporting the facts, even though the facts often have very little to do with Thais or with dogs. “Thais Suspected of Slaughtering and Eating Puppies”23 and “Petah Tikva Police Investigate Suspicion That Thai Workers Launched a Wide-Ranging Dog Hunt”24 are two examples of headlines that were followed by texts that did not support the bold accusations. While “suspicion” may have been the term used by the policemen and simply quoted by the journalists, the articles question the very suspicion. In the first case, the evidence was the bodies of dead puppies found a hundred meters away from a house where Thai workers lived; in the second case, the evidence was neighbors’ complaints that dogs and cats “have been disappearing recently from the streets surrounding a building site where Thais are employed.” As Thais could be employed only in agriculture, the workers were probably Chinese and not Thai, as Chinese migrants are permitted to be employed in the construction sector. For most Israelis, however, this distinction is insignificant. When I pointed out that dog meat is eaten in Vietnam and China but not in Thailand, a typical Israeli response would be: “Chinese, Thai, what’s the difference? They all eat everything.”
Yet one of the most revealing events in which Thais were accused of eating dog meat turned out not to involve dogs at all, although the media reports claimed otherwise. On May 16, 2011, the website Walla News published an article with the headline “Thai Worker Murdered during Argument over Dog Eating,” accompanied by an illustration of a bloodstained ax:
A foreign worker from Thailand … was murdered yesterday during a fight with a coworker. … The suspect, another Thai migrant worker, was arrested by the police. Initial interrogation revealed that the deceased man and the suspected murderer had had an argument over hunting and eating dogs. One of them favored dog eating and the other opposed it. It is still unknown which position each of them held. … The suspect does not speak Hebrew, and investigators are waiting for the arrival of an interpreter.25
Ten days later, the same website published a follow-up article titled “Indicted: Thai Worker Kills Colleague for Killing a Dog,” with an image of a bloody knife on a bloody wooden butcher block. The text reads:
Thaitikun Anuku was charged this morning in Petah Tikva provincial court with killing Paisan Utarkan, another Thai worker, ten days ago. According to the indictment, Anuku murdered Utarkan for killing a dog. Anuku denied this accusation. According to the indictment, … an argument evolved between Anuku and Utarkan for an unknown reason. Anuku grabbed a (p.207) 20-centimeter-long butcher knife and stabbed his colleague. … According to the arrest warrant, Anuku [who doesn’t speak Hebrew] admitted to the killing to the arresting officer but later denied the accusation. His [Israeli] employer said during the interrogation that Anuku approached him, used his hand to motion slaughtering by his neck, and said “Paisan dog.” He then motioned again and said “I Paisan.”26
Obviously, the conclusions drawn from the initial interrogation were hardly convincing because the suspect did not speak Hebrew. The Israeli employer interpreted the slaughtering motions and the four words uttered by the accused (two of which were in Hebrew: “I” and “dog”27) as “Paisan [slaughtered a] dog; I [therefore slaughtered] Paisan.” Another interpretation, which is at least as plausible, would be: “Paisan [is a] dog; I [therefore slaughtered] Paisan.” Yet another interpretation, which would be in line with Tambiah’s (1969) argument that calling someone a dog in Isan is a major offense, is: “Paisan [called me a] dog; I [therefore slaughtered] Paisan.”
Importantly, no actual dog, alive or dead, was included in the indictment or the media reports, casting doubt on whether an argument over killing and eating dog meat ever actually took place. The only reason for the employer, the police, the prosecution, and the reporters to assume that a fight over eating dog meat was the reason for the murder, despite the suspect’s denial, a complete lack of evidence, and more plausible interpretations of the event and the alleged four words spoken by the suspect, was the fact that in Israel everybody believes that Thai workers hunt and eat dogs.
Several other media channels reported the event, with similarly problematic interpretations. Ma’ariv reporter Avi Askenazi wrote: “The police investigation revealed that the murder was instigated by a quarrel between the coworkers, Thai citizens, who couldn’t decide who would be the first to eat the dog they had hunted earlier. The quarrel escalated and ended in one of the workers killing the other.”28 By now, we know that there was no evidence for this allegedly hunted dog. This undermines the reporter’s main argument, but since Israelis believe that Thais eat dogs, the reporter expected that his unsubstantiated interpretation would be accepted by his readership.
There are countless other articles supporting my argument that these stories were sustained by societal misconceptions rather than evidence. For example, consider another report of the same event, published on the Hadshot Arutz 2 (Channel 2 News) website, which also flipped the story upside down with the headline: “Suspicion: Murdered His Friend in Objection to Dog Killing.” The article reads: “A foreign worker from Thailand was cruelly murdered this (p.208) evening … after expressing opposition to the plan of one of his friends to hunt a dog to eat. … Witnesses recounted how a quarrel developed between the two regarding the suspect’s wish to eat a dog, during which the victim stated that this was illegal in Israel.”29
The previous three reports of the event describe the murder as a reaction to a dog being killed for food. This fourth report states that the murder was over a plan to kill a dog in the future. This report also reverses the roles of the killer and victim. In the previous reports, the suspect was accused of killing the victim because the latter killed a dog for meat. In this report, it is the suspect who is described as wanting to eat a dog. In the Ma’ariv report, the murderer and murdered were fighting over who would get the first bite of dog meat; in the Hadshot Arutz 2 report, the killing was in response to a plan to eat dog meat. Neither Ma’ariv nor Hadshot Arutz 2 reported that the suspect denied any connection between the killing and dog meat. Moreover, despite the fact reported in the first article that the accused did not speak Hebrew, Hadshot Arutz 2 quoted witnesses who reported that the victim had stated during the argument that dog meat is illegal in Israel. It’s unclear who these witnesses were, but in any case, it is unlikely that an Israeli witness could have understood such a complex argument in Thai (or Lao), or that the accused could have expressed it in Hebrew.
That a murder occurred is clear; that dog meat was its cause remained completely unsubstantiated. Despite this lack of evidence, all of the Israelis involved, including employers, policemen, prosecutors, and journalists, tied the murder to dog meat. The four stories all contain internal inconsistencies and suggest very different versions and interpretations of the event, but they share a master narrative: Thai migrant workers in Israel eat dogs. Since everybody knows that Thai migrant workers eat dogs, these reports reinforce the same total social fact that proves their veracity despite a lack of physical evidence. Israelis fall into a vicious circle of belief regarding Thai migrant workers, in line with Frank Wu’s argument about the Asian dog-eating myth in the West quoted at the beginning of this chapter: “Dog eating is an international urban legend with some truth to it. Everybody knows that Asians eat dogs” (2003, 40).
In their memorable 1970 sketch “Ha’aliyah La’aretz” (Ascending to the Land),30 Uri Zohar and Arik Einstein perform a series of scenes that depict (p.209) the arrival of Jewish members of different ali’yot (literally “ascends,” or migration waves, a term used in modern Hebrew to convey the elevated spiritual, emotional, and material status of those Jews who chose to immigrate to Israel vis-à-vis those who chose to stay in the lowly Diaspora) and the contemptuous reaction of their predecessors. This contempt is condensed in the first scene into a poisonous remark in Arabic, “Ina’al din babur ili jab’hum” (damn the boat that brought them), made by a couple of Arabs wearing moustaches and keffiyehs and directed at the arriving Russian Jews of the First Aliyah, sometime in the late 1880s. This remark is repeated in each of the scenes and is the punch line of the sketch.
Jews of each aliyah—Russians, Poles, Yemenites, Germans, Moroccans, and Georgians—are defined by traditional outfits, exaggerated accents, and, most importantly, stereotypes: the migrants from Russia are depicted as emotional and hot-blooded; the Poles as sour and bitter; the Germans as particular and tedious; the Yemenites as religious (and the female Yemenite immigrant, the only woman in the entire sketch, is pregnant, alluding to the “primitive” tendency attributed to Yemenites and other immigrants from Middle Eastern countries to bear many children); the Moroccans as combining oriental religious traditionalism and an awkward, wannabe-French style; and the Georgians as wild Cossacks. The sketch captures two important sociological traits that are important for my argument: Each wave of immigrants to Israel is represented by a condescending stereotype, and each wave is disliked and ridiculed by its predecessors.
While the sketch ends with immigrants from Georgia, additional waves of Jewish immigrations continued to arrive in Israel, and each was assigned its own derogative stereotype intended to relegate the new arrivals to the lowest position in the Israeli social hierarchy. Thus, for example, Jews from communist Romania who arrived in Israel in the 1960s were called “Romanians” though earlier immigrants from the same geographical region had not been distinguished as such. These Romanians were stereotyped as unsophisticated quasi-Europeans and dubbed “Ashkenazi orientals,” suggesting that they were less sophisticated and less civilized than previous immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe.
When it came to Mizrahi Jews, a common joke in the 1970s described a ceremony at Binayaney Ha’Uma (Jerusalem’s International Convention Center, literally “the national halls”): “The Transferring of the Knife from the Moroccans to the Georgians,” (Tekes Ha’avarat Haskin MeHamarokaim LaGruzinim). The humor came from the underlying argument that the (p.210) recent arrivals from Georgia were more violent and primitive than even the Moroccans, who, until then, had been dubbed “Morocco sakin” (Morocco knife). People also joked that since the arrival of the Georgians, the Moroccans had started attending concerts—suggesting that both Moroccan and the Georgians were primitive but that the Moroccans had begun undergoing a civilizing process, presumably inspired by the Ashkenazi elite.
The roughly one million immigrants that arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s were culturally processed in a similar way. A distinction was made between “white Russians,” who came from European Soviet states, and “Caucasians,” who came from former Asiatic republics (Smooha 2008). The former were historically Ashkenazi, but since they could potentially compete with the Ashkenazi elite over lucrative jobs and positions that depended on academic and cultural capital (e.g., jobs as physicians, scientists, teachers, or artists), they were defined as “Russians” and stereotyped for their “Soviet pushiness,” the low quality of their academic education (despite the scientific achievements of the USSR and the distinguished academic careers of some of the newcomers), and their “Russian” dress, hygiene, and food. For various reasons, women from European Soviet republics were stereotyped as “Russian prostitutes.” “Caucasians,” however, were conceived of as yet another “primitive” and violent Mizrahi group and treated accordingly: they were relegated to the Israeli periphery and addressed as being in need of civilizing.
Jews from Ethiopia, many of whom reached Israel after heroic voyages and rescue operations and whose arrival was celebrated as proof that the Israeli state and society were not racist and did not discriminate against blacks, were stereotyped as extremely primitive “Stone Age people” and relegated to the lowest position in the Jewish social hierarchy. Israelis have treated the recent wave of Jewish migrants from France with similar contempt and stereotyping, mainly by denying the Europeanness of these newcomers and insisting that they are essentially North African Mizrahi pretending to be European.
In her analysis of “the great chain of orientalism,” Aziza Khazzoom (2003) points out that since its inception, Zionism has been a modernizing, Westernizing project within which each Jewish Diaspora has been orientalized—that is, stigmatized as oriental by its predecessors and relegated to the lower echelons of society—the process that Uri Zohar and Arik Einstein captured so vividly in their sketch. Though Khazoom doesn’t deal with Russians, Caucasians, or Frenchmen, her model explains why immigrants from Russia were not perceived as Ashkenazi, immigrants from (p.211) central Asia were defined as Mizrahi, and why third-generation French Jews were dubbed Zafrokaim (a combination of the Hebrew words for “French” and “Moroccan”) and ridiculed for what veteran Israelis felt was an attempt to disguise themselves as French and European. Each arriving group had to be orientalized to diminish its threat to the prevailing hegemonic elites and social order, which defines as “Western” only those who have gone through a civilizing process in Israel.
Khazoom’s scholarly project and Zohar and Einstein’s artistic critique address only Jewish immigrants (and, to some extent, Arabs and Palestinians), though small numbers of non-Jewish immigrants have also arrived in Israel over the years, most notably African Hebrew Israelites, Vietnamese “boat people,” and Muslim refugees from the former Yugoslavia. These immigrants were perceived by most Israelis as marginal, exotic, and strange, but it was not felt that these groups would destabilize the Israeli social structure. The arrival of massive numbers of migrant workers in the 1990s (and tens of thousands of non-Jewish, African asylum seekers since the mid-1990s), however, could not be ignored, nor could these immigrants be dismissed as marginal and exotic. Romanian, Turkish, Chinese, Filipino, Thai, West African, South American, Sudanese, and Eritrean migrants joined Israeli society and were treated with the same cultural tools that were used so successfully in dealing with previous olim (literally “ascenders,” or immigrants). Orientalizing and stereotyping were applied once again to relegate these newcomers to the lowest social strata.
It is important to bear in mind that the decision to import migrant workers was made by Rabin’s government, which was composed of Israel’s Zionist labor party, Ha’Avoda, and the progressive left-wing party Meretz. Importing non-Jewish migrant workers breached some of the fundamental values of Socialist Zionism that these parties professed to champion, Israeli perceptions of social justice, and the Israeli egalitarian ethos (Ram 1993). It is therefore not surprising that Israelis employed aggressive orientalizing and stereotyping to deal with the moral dilemmas instigated by the mass employment of migrant workers.
The first significant non-Jewish groups of migrant workers that arrived in Israel in the mid-1990s came from Romania, the Philippines, Thailand, and West Africa. The Romanians, who were employed in construction, had a stereotype waiting for them: just like the Romanian Jews discussed earlier, these Romanians were perceived as quasi-European and primitive. Special attention was paid to their beer consumption: with little money to spend, (p.212) they often congregated by neighborhood grocery stores, where they would purchase cheap beer and bread, which they consumed on the spot. Very quickly, they were defined as drunkards. Thus, their low salaries and poor living conditions were judged to be appropriate and even excessive.
According to Israelis, the Filipinas employed as caregivers and domestic helpers fit the classic Western stereotype of Asian women (Chung 2011): they were gentle, submissive, confined to the private sphere, and, as I was told countless times, “born to serve” (noldu lesharet). Though my interviewees did not mention the opera Madame Butterfly and its later incarnation, the musical Miss Saigon, tragic descriptions of oriental women who sacrificed themselves for Westerners loomed over conversations in which Israelis described the Filipina caregivers who gave up their youths, social lives, and chances of having spouses and children (or alternatively their conjugal lives and roles as parents) to take care of ailing and elderly Israeli Jews for minimal pay. The fact that they were stereotyped as “natural servants” justified their working conditions.
Undocumented workers from West Africa congregated in Tel Aviv’s poorest neighborhoods and were mainly employed as domestic helpers and cleaners by upper-middle-class Israeli families. Here as well, an obvious and effective stereotype was waiting: just like the African Americans many Israelis saw on television, in films, and on occasional visits to the United States, these Africans were deemed bodily agile, extremely masculine, intellectually limited, and dangerous. As such, the most they could aspire to would be serving white people (bearing in mind that most Israeli Jews perceive of themselves as white), obviously not as slaves, but as cleaners and domestic helpers. Just like African Americans slaves and servants of the past and athletes of the present, these African men were considered attractive and sexy, socially undesirable but physically appealing; Israeli Jews wouldn’t want to leave these men alone at the house with their adolescent daughters, perhaps for fear of sexual assault but possibly also for fear of mutual attraction.31 This stereotype was exacerbated by media reports of sexual assaults committed by undocumented African workers and later by asylum seekers, reports that were probably as biased as those describing dog eating by Thais.
When it came to Thai migrant workers, however, stereotyping was more challenging. Israelis had no prevailing stereotypes of Thais, and Thailand was (and still is) one of the most popular destinations for Israeli tourists, who rave about its beaches, jungles, temples, palaces, wonderful food, and smiling people. Moreover, Thais were employed by members of the agricultural (p.213)
sector, the epitome of Israeli Zionism—the ideology of self-reliance, a strong work ethic, and a socialist ethos. Members of this social echelon, composed mainly of kibbutz and moshav members, dubbed hahityashvut haovedet (the working settlement), were considered by many Israelis to be “the salt of the earth” and a model for ideal lifestyle and moral standards. It is thus of little wonder that Israelis found the exploitation of migrant workers by members of this social group difficult to accept.
The potential defamation of those perceived by many as Israel’s moral elite and the lack of existing stereotypes for Thais prompted the cultural mechanism described in this chapter. At first it was hunting, specifically that of (p.214) wildlife, that drew negative attention to the Thais and caused them to be depicted as a risk to Israeli nature (though Israeli farming itself is nature’s most dangerous enemy). Hunting and gathering further defined them as people who “eat everything,” primitive savages that did not develop sophisticated categorization systems to define edibility, inedibility, and food taboos. As primitive savages, their poor living conditions in Israel were believed to be much better than those in Thailand, and their Israeli salaries were imaged to be legendary in comparison with Thai standards.
But at a certain moment, perhaps but not necessarily because dogs were caught in traps set by Thai migrant workers, a new stereotype emerged—that of Thais being dog-meat eaters. The ensuing moral panic—initiated, exacerbated, and reflected by the media—suggested that accusations of dog eating were much more effective than complaints about hunting when it came to convincing Israelis that Thai migrant workers were worthy of exploitation. Thus, even though the hunting practices of Thai migrant workers posed a real threat to the Israeli nature, and even though it remains to be proven that Thai workers ever hunted or ate dogs, Israeli media and public attention shifted to reports of dog eating. The question that remains is why allegations of dog eating proved to be so effective and convincing. This question has nothing to do with Thailand and can be understood only in Israeli terms.
According to a Ministry of Industry and Commerce report, 12 percent of Israeli households had dogs in 2011, and the total number of dogs in the country was 270,000. Israeli dogs belong in most cases to the category of pets.32 According to the report, Israelis were committed to caring for their dogs for extended periods of time (an average of 7.8 years) and to spending significant amounts of money on dog food, grooming, and health (almost US$1,00 per year). Dogs are perceived by Israelis as loyal and friendly and considered “man’s best friend,” and they usually enjoy their patrons’ love, protection, and resources. Dogs have first names and are attributed the family names of their owners when medically and administratively registered.
In his analysis of the taboo on dog meat in the United States in the early 1970s, Marshal Sahlins argues that “America is the land of the sacred dog” (1991, 282) and explains that “dogs and horses participate in American society in the capacity of subjects. They have proper names, and indeed we are in the habit of conversing with them. … Dogs and horses are thus deemed inedible. … But as domestic cohabitants, dogs are closer to man than are horses. … They are ‘one of the family’” (284). In her recent study of human-dog interactions in Israel, Dafna Shir-Vertesh (2012, 420) depicts a more (p.215) nuanced understanding of these relationships. Dogs in Israel, she argues, are “loving and loved members of the family, very similar to small children.”33 Her research makes it very clear that Israeli dogs are important and meaningful family members. Eating them would therefore not be seen just as breaching a food taboo but also as murder and cannibalism.
The supposed murderous and cannibalistic nature of Thai migrant workers was also the implicit subject of most media reports of alleged dog eating, exposing the stereotype’s meaning and might. As hunters-gatherers, Thai migrant workers were perceived as primitive and uncivilized, but as dog eaters, they were redefined as murderous and cannibalistic. As such, the moral dilemmas that surrounded their exploitation and ill treatment dissolved: those who kill and eat man’s best friend are hardly human and hardly deserve human treatment. Once dog-meat eating by Thai migrant workers was established as a total social fact, Israelis didn’t have to bother any more with ethical dilemmas. It was the food myth that redefined the power relations between Israelis and Thais and sent the latter to the bottom of the social hierarchy, where their exploitation was obvious.
Finally, let me return to the event in which Thai workers killed, cooked, and tried to eat a donkey. We were getting ready to leave the farm when the Israeli employer asked me if I could assist him with another problem he didn’t know how to approach. “Ever since the Thais ate the donkey,” he said, “the Bedouin employees refuse to work with them.”
I approached the Bedouin employees, who were having their lunch break. I told them who I was and asked about the donkey affair. After some embarrassed smiles and jokes, they gave an account of the event that was similar to the version we had heard from the Thai workers. After confirming some of the details, I asked them whether it was true that they refused to work alongside the Thais ever since the donkey event had taken place. A few seconds of silence ensued, and then one of them said: “Don’t you know? Thais eat Bedouins!”
Here again, a culinary practice was used to depict Israeli power hierarchies and relations. By way of a food metaphor, the Bedouins were telling me that in Israel’s symbolic power structure, dogs and Bedouins occupy a similar position. (p.216)
(1.) Agriculturalists in the Arava and Jordan Valleys started to employ Thais in the mid-1980s. Employing migrant workers was illegal at the time, and these Thais were defined as volunteers or trainees and paid significantly less than the minimum wage (E. Cohen 1999). This arrangement, devised to bypass the prohibition on migrant labor, is ongoing at the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training, where hundreds of Vietnamese, Burmese, Tibetan, Laotian, Cambodian, Nepali, and Thai nationals, defined as “students,” live and work alongside Thai migrant workers and dedicate a day per week to classes. On a recent visit, I was told that these classes were taught mainly by members of the local community and not by academics or professional teachers. As both the students and teachers speak very basic English, which is the only language that they can use to communicate with one another, it seems to me that these classes are more about socializing than learning and that the project’s main objective is to increase the volume of imported manpower and circumvent the restrictions on the numbers of migrant workers. See Liat Natovich-Kushitski, “Baim lilmod haklaut vehofhim le ‘ovdim zarim’” [Coming to study agriculture and becoming “foreign workers”], NRG, July 31, 2015, www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART2/713/622.html.
(2.) “Ofen haasakat ovdim zarim bebinyan, behaklaut ubesiud” [Employment mode of foreign workers in construction, agriculture and care-giving], Hakneset Merkaz Hamehkar Vehameida [Knesset Center for Research and Information], June 2015, http://main.knesset.gov.il/Activity/Info/MMMSummaries19/Foreign_3.pdf.
(3.) “Ovdim zarim beIsrael” [Foreign workers in Israel], Population and Immigration Authority, 2016, www.gov.il/BlobFolder/reports/foreign_workers_in_israel_2016_report/he/foreign_workers_march_2016_report_0.pdf.
(p.244) (4.) Eugene Anderson, e-mail message to author, January 24, 2016.
(5.) Kate Hodal, “How Eating Dog Became Big Business in Vietnam,” Guardian, September 27, 2013, www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/27/eating-dog-vietnam-thailand-kate-hodal.
(7.) Thomas Fuller, “Dog Meat Trade in Thailand Is under Pressure and May Be Banned,” New York Times, November 1, 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/11/02/world/asia/dog-meat-trade-in-thailand-is-under-pressure-and-may-be-banned.html?_r=0.
(8.) National Service and Information Centre, “Foreign Workers’ Rights Handbook,” Population and Immigration Authority and the State of Israel, January 1, 2017, http://mfa.gov.il/MFA/ConsularServices/Documents/ForeignWorkers2013.pdf.
(10.) Camilla Schick, “Israel’s Thai Farmworkers Tell of Grim Plight,” BBC, January 30, 2015, www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-31001525; Or Kashti, “Bikur Atzuv etzel ovdei haklaut mitailand shemegadlim et mezonenu” [A sad visit to the Thai agriculture workers that grow our food], Haaretz, June 20, 2013, www.haaretz.co.il/news/education/.premium-1.2051826.
(13.) Raijman and Kushnirovich (2015, 10) point out that prior to the implementation of the bilateral agreements with Thailand in 2010, “the recruiting agencies’ fees were exorbitant: slightly over $9,000.” The agreements led to reduced expenses of US$2,000–3,000 in 2012–13. This remains a high sum by Thai standards, and the outrageous interest rates make it even higher.
(14.) “A Raw Deal: Abuse of Thai Workers in Israel’s Agricultural Sector,” Human Rights Watch, January 21, 2015, www.hrw.org/report/2015/01/21/raw-deal/abuse-thai-workers-israels-agricultural-sector.
(15.) That Israelis refuse to eat placentas but are comfortable with using cosmetics that contain them may be explained first by the fact that when the organs are used in cosmetics, they have been heavily processed into homogenous pale creams with pleasant aromas that are far removed from the bleeding placentas. Second, the power of food lies precisely in the process of incorporation, whereby matter crosses the body boundaries and breaches the world-self dichotomies (Fischler 1988). In this sense, applying a cream made with processed placenta to the outer surfaces of the body is nothing like cooking and eating the actual organ.
(17.) See, for example, Sivan Pardo Renwick, “Is Israel Going to Be the First Vegan Nation?” Vegan Woman, January 10, 2014, www.theveganwoman.com/israel-going-first-vegan-nation.
(p.245) (18.) Tamar Nahari, “Dorban bamekarer” [A porcupine in the fridge], News!Walla, October 21, 2001, http://news.walla.co.il/item/129878; Adi Hashmonai, “Berashut hateva vehaganim nilhamim bazaid habilti huki” [Nature and Parks Authority combats illegal hunting], NRG, December 27, 2009, www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART1/998/014.html; “Lishmor al hayot habr beartzenu—Malkodot shel poalim zarion meaymot al olam hahai shel Israel” [Protecting wildlife in our country—Foreign workers’ traps threaten Israel’s wildlife], Nature and Parks Authority, December 15, 2009. www.parks.org.il/ConservationAndheritage/Science/Pages/hayotBar.aspx.
(23.) Yoav Itiel, “Hashad: Tailandim shahtu gurei klavim veachlu otam” [Thais suspected of slaughtering and eating puppies], Gefen Magazine Hamoshavot, February 10, 2014, www.magazin.org.il/inner.asp?page=179781.
(24.) Tamar Nahari, “BePetah Tikva yesh tailandim reevim” [Petah Tikva police investigate suspicion that Thai workers launched a wide-ranging dog hunt], News!Walla, May 16, 2001, http://news.walla.co.il/item/62189.
(27.) Israeli employers and Thai workers have devised a functional language made of basic Hebrew and Thai with which they convey quite complex instructions and ideas—but in the very limited register of the farming activities taking place at specific farms. Both employers and workers rarely speak fluent English.
(29.) Azri Amram, “Hashad: Ratzah et havero ki hitnaged leachilat kelev” [Suspicion: Murdered his friend in objection to dog killing], Mako, May 15, 2011, www.mako.co.il/news-law/crime/Article-9afcbea2a45ff21004.htm.
(30.) “Arik Einstein & Uri Zohar (Aliyah w/Subtitles),” YouTube video, 7:08, posted by “NyJazzGuit,” November 27, 2013, (p.246) www.youtube.com/watch?v=MBNWHTipwEA. Zohar was a legendary film director before he became a born again Ultra-Orthodox rabbi. Einstein went on to become Israel’s premier singer.
(31.) West African migrant workers termed their line of employment gumi (rubber), after the rubber bands fixed on Israeli-style mops. But just like “rubber” in English, gumi is also a nickname for condoms, further adding to the sexual aura of these workers.
(32.) The ministry of Industry and Commerce was replaced by the Ministry of Economy and Industry, and this report is no longer available online.
(33.) Shir-Vertesh points out that these loving relationships may sometimes transform: changing circumstances, and especially the birth of a child, may dramatically change a dog’s position, sometimes to the extent of their being moved outside of the home.