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Say sayonara to sushi

by michael February 15 2008

There's nothing worse than a stupid government, and unfortunately, Israel's often is. Their latest glaringly brilliant plan to save the country involves - wait for it -  booting out all Asian-born chefs working in Asian restaurants in Israel and filling the vacancies with native sons. That sound you hear is the collective din of every sushi lover in Israel banging their heads against their sushi mats.

Israel's nationwide sushi craze is being endangered by a wasabi-strength threat: The government, seeking to protect local jobs, wants to send all foreign-born Asian chefs packing by January 2009.

Asian food has become increasingly popular in Israel, fueled by the large number of young Israelis who travel to the region in an unofficial rite of passage after compulsory army service.

Thai, Chinese, Japanese and Indian restaurants have grown into a $280 million industry, accounting for 10 percent of the local dining landscape, according to the Ethnic Restaurant Association.

For the moment, Asian restaurants employ 900 foreign chefs and kitchen workers. But if the government has its way, that number could soon drop.

"We feel an Israeli can hold a wok as well as a Thai or a Chinese person," said Shoshana Strauss, a lawyer at the Industry and Trade Ministry, which regulates work permits for foreign workers.

Restaurant operators said the Israeli plan posed an existential threat to their thriving businesses, saying the foreigners have expertise that cannot easily be replaced. 

How exactly does this work? Let's say 500 chef jobs are "saved" - meaning Asian chefs are replaced with Israelis, most of whom will lack the training of the foreign-born chefs (not everyone can be sushi maven Boaz Tzairi). How many restaurants will close as a result of their food quality suddenly dropping? Certainly enough to cause the loss of far more than 500 jobs - restaurants employ dozens of people, from cooks to waiters to busboys. Ten closed restaurants would probably be more than enough to undo any "good" caused by this initiative. 

Earlier this week, Israel's Asian restaurants went on a one-day strike in protest over the government's threat, giving the nation a taste of life without spicy tuna, California rolls and chopsticks.

Strauss said the government was not trying to eradicate foreign restaurant workers altogether. Instead, she said, the ministry was trying to eliminate unskilled kitchen workers, who she said are often exploited by restaurateurs who pay them less than minimum wage.

"They are well-behaved, they work very hard [and] they don't demand their rights," Strauss said, adding that the situation creates some "humanitarian issues." 

This brings up an interesting contradiction: restaurants are not the only industry in which Asian workers are employed, and not nearly the largest. Thousands of Asian workers toil every day in Israeli kibbutzim, doing the hard agricultural labor many old-line Israeli kibbutznikim have become too bourgeois to deal with. These workers are also often unskilled and often, quite frankly, exploited - and they now form the backbone of a beloved symbol of Israeliness, the kibbutz system, as opposed to slinging a chef's knife in a restaurant devoted to their own native cuisine. Yet the government isn't making any motions to address that. Apparently it's worse to have a Thai chef in a Thai restaurant than a Thai fruit picker in a purportedly socialist kibbutz founded on the ideal of Jewish labor.

So what's the real story? Jerusalemite suspects a secretive cabal of falafel shop owners, tired of losing business to bizarre foreign foods, have bribed their way into the highest echelons of Israeli government, one grease-stained sack of crispy fried falafel balls at a time. You heard it here first.

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