Racist legislation



July 19, 2004

Last summer, the Knesset revised the Citizenship Law in a manner that imposes draconian limitations on the freedom of Arab citizens of Israel to marry. An Israeli Arab from Taibeh, for instance, is already unable to marry a woman of his choice from Ramallah and establish a family with her in Israel. If he is stubborn, he will be compelled to live in another country.

The revision was initiated by the government, based on the recommendation of the head of the Shin Bet security service, who claimed that, "since 2001, 23 residents of the region who received standing in Israel due to family unification were involved in providing significant aid to hostile activity." In the wake of this recommendation - and not following a public debate befitting the intensity of damage to the rights of Arab citizens - the Knesset decided to completely prevent family unification, and permit non-citizens to stay in Israel only for a short period of time or for medical reasons, or if they have unique qualities - usually collaborators with Israel.

In its response to a petition to the High Court of Justice on the issue, the state claims the law is temporary; but a temporary injunction by its nature becomes a permanent injunction, and meanwhile, the rights of thousands of Arab citizens have been steadily damaged. Yesterday's extension of the injunction for another six month s provides more evidence to bolster the suspicion that the security explanation is only a cover for a racist political position. Particularly disappointing is the stance of liberal-minded Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, who participated in revising the law and sufficed with establishing a committee to try to ease the restrictions.

If the reasoning for fundamentally damaging the basic rights of Israeli Arabs is, indeed, solely based on security considerations, the state could have been expected to avoid demonstrating an intolerable recklessness in changing one of the most important and equality-promoting laws on the books. The state could have been expected to institute a more fundamental security check for those who want to reside in Israel by force of their marriage. In addition, the 23 people whom the Shin Bet said were involved in hostile activity is a drop in the ocean, considering that nearly 100,000 Palestinians have settled in Israel in the last decade as a result of this law.

The Citize nship Law is intended to balance as much as possible the discrimination that stems from the Law of Return, and every damage to it distances us from the basic principles on which Western democracies function. For as long as the Law of Return is intended to preserve the Jewish character of the state of the Jews, the Citizenship Law is intended to open a narrow gap for the entrance of non-Jews in specific personal circumstances. In the past, the interior minister had broad authority to decide who would enter, who would be a resident and who could become a citizen. This authority has now effectively been blocked regarding anyone defined by law as a "resident of the region." The law in its new formulation directly harms Arab citizens who marry "residents of the region."

Israel has the right to limit the number of immigrants, as many countries do, but it cannot do so at the expense of the basic rights of its Arab citizens. Israel, in particular, in light of the historic circumstances surrounding its birth, must demonstrate restraint when it comes to legislating laws that result in fundamental discrimination against citizens of a large national minority. It is impossible to preserve the Jewish character of the state at the expense of equality, and it is worthwhile to remember that it is not the Citizenship Law that threatens the Jewish character of the State of Israel, but the continuation of the country's increasing control over the occupied Palestinian population.