Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Israeli Supreme Court Decision on the Citizenship Law

(Kids from Al-Faruq High School, Kseife, Israel where I was a part-time English teacher)

The issue of the Israeli law preventing Israeli citizens from marrying Palestinians is a very painful, difficult issue for me, about which I feel too conflicted to state my own opinion. I'd rather present the Israeli perspective on the issue and to analyze the overwhelming support among Jewish Israelis for the law.

The notion of "demographic control" sounds very ugly to people like us who have internalized liberal North American values. The fact is that in Israel, demography and security are conceived of as being almost inseparable. Many people would tell you straight out that they see an increase in the Arab population as a threat to their security and the survival of Israel as a Jewish state. That sentiment is of course linked to the fact that Jewish Israelis are intensely aware of the fact that they are a tiny minority in the larger Middle East. In Israel, even people who are generally quite liberal in their view of Israeli Arabs are frightened by the close ties between Arabs in Israel (quite a few of whom identify themselves as Palestinians) and Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza. I used to tell people that only a minority of Israeli Arabs have been involved in terrorist attacks, but that's not very satisfying to the average Jewish Israeli. They'll ask you explicitly: why shouldn't we do everything we can to prevent an increase even in that minority?

Can one argue with that kind of logic? I think that one cannot deny that marriages between Arabs/Palestinians in Israel or "Israeli Arabs" (there are so many identities that people embrace, one, two or three at a time) are an important factor (not the only one) behind Arabs' identification with the Palestinians. How much harder is it for a child born to a Palestinian mother (and usually, it is Arab Israeli men who marry Palestinian wives) to relate in a positive way to the state of Israel and to Israeli Jewish society? A whole bunch of the kids that I teach have Palestinian mothers. I remember two sisters who always wore bead bracelets with the Palestinian flag. I never did a survey of their attitudes to Israel compared to those of other kids, but there's no doubt in my mind that that family ties can cause a very conflicted identity - it's certainly not a recipe for loyalty. Can you fault the majority of Israelis who support the law for being afraid? I won't deny that racism isn't part of the equation, but you'll find support for the law even among left-wingers who are quite outspoken in their defence of Arabs in Israel.

There's also an economic fear: there's the belief that more and more Palestinians will flood into Israel as the economic situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip deteriorates further. So, in the same way that certain European states have slapped restrictions on their citizenship laws, Israelis see nothing wrong with the new law. The old law extending citizenship to Palestinian spouses has come to be seen as a springboard that will allow entire extended families from the West Bank or Gaza to join their relatives in Israel. Throughout the 1990s, many many Palestinians got either citizenship or permanent resident status through marriage and family ties. I have a good friend who is from Hebron and grew up there, but moved to Israel once he graduated from university about three or four years. He was able to do so because his mother was a resident of East Jerusalem and is therefore a permanent resident. Up until the second intifada, people like my friend would have stayed in their hometowns, but now, because of the economic collapse in the Palestinian territories, the greater economic opportunities in Israel and the comparatively generous social welfare system and the relatively good public health care system have become huge draws for Palestinians. My friend, btw, is a great person, a productive member of society who works as a badly needed English teacher at a high school in the Bedouin sector. But can you expect someone like him to become a loyal citizen who identifies with the state of Israel? Will his children, in whom, I have no doubt, he will instill the moral values by which he lives, grow up to feel anything but alienation vis-a-vis the Israeli state?

Finally, there is one interesting observation that I'd like to share about the impact of this law in the Negev, among the Bedouin. Many many Bedouin men have married Palestinian women (usually from the Gaza Strip) in the past. One of the reasons has been purely economical. In Arab society, a groom pays a "mahr" (Hebrew: moher) or "bride price" to the bride. That money is supposed to go to the bride as a kind of insurance policy in case of divorce or whatever, but the bride's family usually takes part or even most of it. In any case, because of the assymetry in the economic situation in the Gaza Strip and Israel, Palestinian brides are usually "cheaper" than Bedouin brides, unless the marriage is between cousins, in which case the family members charge lower "prices." In the Negev, the "availability" of Palestinian brides was a factor that enabled polygamy in many cases. Taking a second wife was made more economically feasible. Often, these brides were taken at a very young age, too. Maybe the new law will reduce the incidence of polygamy, or perhaps it will further increase cousin marriage among the more traditional segments of Bedouin society. But maybe young people will in any case begin to abandon polygamy.


Noah S. said...

John - Those are crucial perspectives to bear in mind. Immigration policies are notoriously easy to condemn without a full appreciation of the motives involved, and it's particularly difficult for liberals in the West to come to terms with the inseparability of security concerns and demographic control. However, given the numbers that Ha'aretz cites in its editorial (presuming they are correct)--"only" 26 of the tens of thousands people who gained Israeli citizenship through family reunification since 1967 have been accused of abetting terrorism--it seems that this citizenship law amendment business has more to do with the terrifying fear of the eventual loss of a Jewish majority in Israel.

While I understand (and share) the very real fears among Israelis regarding long-term demographic change, I also believe that there exist certain inviolable foundations of the liberal state -- the first being equality before the law.

John said...

Yes, yes that is exactly what I was trying to say: the law has to do with demographic angst, not so much short-term security issues. The point that I was trying to make is that, beyond racism, there are some fears and anxieties among Jewish Israelis about the long term demographic situation of their country. These fears cannot be dismissed merely as irrational or base racism, because of the Israeli/Middle Eastern geopolotical context. I think that this is not like 1960s Australia and its white-only immigration policy.

I would be the first to agree with you that the state of Israel and Israeli society have many rather illiberal aspects, although Israel's neighbours still make it look pretty good. The question that always comes back to haunt me, though, is whether or not North American/European Liberalism is desirable for Israel or not. Should it be the yardstick/benchmark or not?

Noah S. said...

Liberalism as I understand it is marked by two fundamental ideas: one, that citizens are equal under the law; two, that government is best that governs least. While I sometimes doubt the applicability of the second idea, equality under the law on the other hand forms the backbone of modern society and the basis of all secular consitutions. Israel's constitution, too, guarantees equal rights to all its citizens. Therefore this particular case of family reunification stikes me as straightforward, at least if one admits that family reunification is a right. Today's lead article of the English version of Ha'aretz quotes a letter from Justice Barak to a Yale Law School friend of his saying that most of the Supreme Court agrees on the unconstitutionality of the amendment; it's just that some refused to vote to strike it down either because it's expiring in two months anyway, or because of the security issues involved.

I certainly have my biases as an American Jew, I admit it. I don't think Israel should or can afford to become AS liberal as the West (supposedly is) until its neighbors liberalize, but in the meantime I believe STRONGLY that no modern society, including Israel, should cross certain lines - one of which being the line where you start passing laws targeting specific members of your citizenry.

In any case, the demographic problem presented by family reunification seems like it could be dealt with on a case-by-case basis under the old law; Israel can simply reject more applications if they want...

John said...

I agree with you Noah that the principle of equal rights for all citizens should not be compromised on. On the other hand, I am not so sure whether family re-unification is sacrosanct. But you point out, and this is definitely true, that there is a difference between granting citizenship or permanent resident status to a spouse and to granting it to an entire (Palestinian) extended family of the spouse.

Come to think of it, maybe it's wrong to interpret the amendment to the citizenship law as a demographic device. After all, a few more Palestinian wives of Israeli Arabs won't really make a huge difference in the demographic balance. There is a greater fear among Israelis of the spectre of large family unifications (when the brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces of the Palestinian spouse also come to Israel. Maybe the law against marriages to Palestinians should be seen as an attempt to further separate the Arab population in Israel from Palestinians in the West Banka and Gaza Strip. It has to be seen, perhaps, in the context of the disengagement, separation/security fence and the attempt to sever the links between Israel and the Palestinians.

Noah S. said...


Derek said...

If you're worried about israeli arabs "identifying with the state of Israel", i didn't really hear much of a defense against the notion that this new law will only offer further evidence that the state of Israel is not looking out for them.

You're certainly right about Israel compaired to its neighbors however. Chomskyites in the west seem to hold Israel to higher standards of democracy than their Arab neighbors; a regional double standard that smacks of a racistly low regard for Arabs more than for Jews.

John said...

You know, Derek, I'm glad you raised that point. What you're saying is that the law will alienate Arab citizens of Israel further from the state of Israel. In theory, that sounds like a good reason for striking down the amendment.

I'd like to first question the common-sense notion that Israeli Arabs and other national/ethnic minorities choose a national identity for themselves (e.g. "Palestinians living in Israel") because of negative reasons, such as alienation caused by discrimination. Why is it so hard for us to conceive of national identity choices as positive choices? In other words, why can we not conceive of Israeli Arabs who choose to identify themselves as Palestinians as agents/initiators, not just objects/responders? Maybe Israeli Arabs who identify themselves as Palestinians do so because they feel or have been raised by their parents to make themselves feel part of a larger Palestinian national identity? I think living in Quebec taught me quite a lot about identities. Could you honestly say that the Quebecois are getting shafted? I think most observers would agree that they have it damn good. So why is there still a vibrant, nationalist, separatist movement in Quebec?

To tell you the truth, I'm pretty fatalistic about the power of a majority society to win over a minority that already has a well formed national identity. In the Israeli case, I seriously think that the decision of many Israeli Arabs to identify themselves as Palestinians is independent of how badly or how well they are treated by the state or by Israeli Jews. One of my Arab friends, a colleague at the high school where I teach, once told me that for him, the fact that he was born in Israel has no bearing on his identity as a Palestinian. He called it a "geographical coincidence" or a "geographical aside" I think.

All of that not withstanding, I am not saying that one should be indifferent to discrimination against Israeli Arabs. Discrimination remains a serious problem in Israeli society. Secondly, I believe that people should be free to identify with whomever and whatever they want, as long as they're not causing any harm. In fact, among the many Israeli Arabs who identify themselves as Palestinians, most, I think, would not assist a terrorist, nor would they engage in violence against Israeli Jews (on the other hand, there have been exceptions and this is not something that one can ignore).

The average Jewish Israeli has a visceral feeling that family ties between Arabs living in Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza Strip are creating a "fifth column" in Israel and threaten his personal security. Perhaps that feeling is strengthened by that allowing more Palestinians to become Israelis will create a new generation of Israeli Palestinians who hate the country in which they live. I have the feeling that many Israelis sense that mothers, and this is often overlooked by historians, are a powerful agent in the formation of identity. Mothers after all tend to be the ones who do most of the child raising.

Maybe this kind of thinking, and here I'm speculating, even influenced the slim majority (a majority of one I believe) of Supreme Court judges who voted to uphold the amendment to the citizenship law.

Of course, there are plenty of good reasons to strike down the law. We've already discussed those above --they hinge on preserving the fundamental principle of equality before the law. International public opinion should also be taken into account, although many Israelis would bridle at that that notion.

Amos said...

Most Arabs are not going to identify with Israel anytime soon. Nevertheless, as Noah has insisted throughout and as John has conceded, I don't think these principles can be bestowed on or withdrawn from certain parts of the population according to its behavior. I am sympathetic to the demographic concerns in general - I want Israel to remain a Jewish state, as ugly as that may sound to some European and North American liberals. But this law strikes me as irreconcilable with the most important values of a democratic state, and I don't think you can violate the rights of your citizens in order to maintain a demographic balance. I do, however, think that there is nothing wrong with attempts to define Israel's borders so as to guarantee a Jewish majority, provided of course that you do not, God forbid, exclude current Arab citizens of the state from those future boundaries. As for the Palestinians living beyond the 1967 borders, I think it is perfectly legimate that many Israelis do not want them to become a part of the country. Obviously. Maybe it's even silly to raise this, but there are plenty of European and N. American liberals who object that there is something racist about this desire. For them, the first reference point is Nazi Germany (the Arabs are the Jews of the 1930s). I prefer to think of the Sudeten-Germans in interwar Czechoslovakia. It strikes me as a more fitting comparison, if we are going to make them.