Court nixes push for ‘Israeli nationality’

18 October 2013

Al-Jazeera – 18 October 2013

A court decision this month that rejected Israelis’ right to a shared nationality has highlighted serious problems caused by Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state, say lawyers and human rights activists.

A group of 21 Israelis had appealed to the Supreme Court to demand the state recognise their wish to be classified as “Israeli nationals”.

Since Israel’s founding in 1948, authorities have refused to recognise such a nationality, instead classifying Israelis according to the ethnic group to which each belongs. The overwhelming majority are registered as either “Jewish” or “Arab” nationals, though there are more than 130 such categories in total.

Critics say the system, while seemingly a technical matter, has far-reaching effects. The citizenship laws, they say, undergird a system of systematic discrimination against the one-fifth of Israel’s population who are non-Jews – most of them belonging to Israel’s Palestinian minority.

Some observers also fear that the court ruling, which effectively upheld Israel’s definition as a Jewish state, will strengthen the aversion of Israel’s right-wing government to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted that Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority recognise Israel as a Jewish state as a condition for reaching a peace agreement.

‘I am an Israeli’

The case was brought to court by the “I am an Israeli” movement, led by Uzi Ornan, a retired linguist from northern Israel. The group, which includes both Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, argued that they should be allowed to change their nationality to “Israeli”.

“This ruling is very dangerous,” said Ornan. “It allows Israel to continue being a very peculiar country indeed, one that refuses to recognise the nationality of its own people. I don’t know of another country that does such a thing. It is entirely anti-democratic.”

The “I am an Israeli” movement objects to Israel’s system of laws that separate citizenship from nationality. While Israelis enjoy a common citizenship, they have separate nationalities based on their ethnic identity. Only the Jewish majority has been awarded national rights, meaning that Palestinian citizens face institutionalised discrimination, said Ornan.

He added: “It tells the country’s Arab citizens that they have no real recognition in their own country – that they will always be treated as foreigners and they will always face discrimination.”

Others view the ruling more positively. Anita Shapira, a professor emeritus of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University, said creating a new category of “Israeli national” would undermine the Jewish essence of the state and alienate Jews from other countries who felt a connection to Israel through a shared religion.

“The attempt to claim that there is a Jewish nationality in the state of Israel that is separate from the Jewish religion is something very revolutionary,” she said.

The “I am an Israeli” movement’s petition was originally heard and rejected in 2007 by a district court in Jerusalem. The group then appealed to the Supreme Court, the second time that Israel’s citizenship laws have been challenged in this venue.

In the first hearing, in 1971, Justice Shimon Agranat ruled that it was “illegitimate” so soon after Israel’s founding for the petitioners to “ask to separate themselves from the Jewish people and to achieve for themselves the status of a distinct Israeli nation”.

Though more than 40 years had passed, that position was largely upheld in the new ruling. Asher Grunis, the head of the Supreme Court, decided: “The existence of an Israeli ethnic nationality has not been proven.” Another judge who heard the case, Hanan Melcer, warned that conceding such a nationality would jeopardise “the Jewish and the democratic nature of the state”.

Unequal treatment?

However, legal analysts have drawn the opposite conclusion. Aeyal Gross, a law professor at Tel Aviv University, wrote in the Haaretz newspaper that the court’s decision “will continue to obscure the possibility of having real democracy in Israel”.

Hassan Jabareen, the director of Adalah, a legal rights group for the Arab minority in Israel, said the state’s refusal to recognise a shared nationality stripped Palestinians inside Israel of equality in most areas of their lives, including access to land, housing, education and employment. “It is also disturbing that Israeli law treats Israel as the Jewish homeland for Jews everywhere, even those who are not citizens of Israel,” he said.

Jabareen said this was achieved through the 1950 Law of Return, which allows Jews anywhere in the world to come to Israel and gain automatic citizenship.

Israel used another law – the Citizenship Law of 1952 – to belatedly confer citizenship on the Palestinians who remained on their land following the 1948 war that established Israel.

The Law of Return effectively provides an immigration policy only for Jews. Under the terms of the Citizenship Law, only a few dozen non-Jews – those who marry an Israeli citizen – qualify for naturalisation every year.

Israel passed another law in 2003 that bars most Palestinians from the occupied territories and Arabs from neighbouring states from being eligible to naturalise, even if they marry an Israeli.

At the time, officials said the law was needed to prevent terrorism, but most observers believe the legislation’s real aim was to prevent what Israelis call “a right of return through the back door” – the fear that Palestinians would use marriage to Palestinians inside Israel to win citizenship and thus erode the country’s Jewish majority.

Ornan and others complain that the ethnic and religious basis of Israeli citizenship is further accentuated by Israel’s adoption of arcane personal status laws dating from the Ottoman period. There are no civil institutions dealing with most areas of Israelis’ private lives, forcing citizens to be identified with their religious community. Civil marriage, for example, is not possible inside Israel, and anyone marrying across the religious divide must marry abroad, typically in Cyprus, and then register the marriage upon their return.

Civil rights groups such as “I am an Israeli”, as well as the Palestinian minority’s political parties, have been trying to challenge the citizenship laws, arguing that they are the key to Israel’s system of structural discrimination.

Adalah has established an online database showing that Israel has more than 55 laws that explicitly discriminate between Jewish and Palestinian citizens. This number has grown rapidly in recent years, said Jabareen, as the Israeli right-wing has been forced to legislate many established but uncodified discriminatory practices that were under threat of being ruled unconstitutional by the courts.

In one recent example, Netanyahu’s government passed the Admissions Committee Law in 2011, to prevent the Supreme Court ruling against vetting committees that have long denied Palestinian citizens access to hundreds of communities controlling most of the land in Israel. The government acted after a Palestinian citizen of Israel, Adel Qaadan, spent two decades in a legal battle to be allowed into one such community, Katzir. Qaadan was among the petitioners who lost this month’s case to be recognised as an Israeli national.

Growing divide

The court ruling highlighted the growing divide between the ruling right-wing coalition on one side, and civil rights groups and the Palestinian leadership in Israel on the other.

Since the mid-1990s, the Palestinian political parties have increasingly challenged Israel’s claim to be a “Jewish and democratic state”. Instead, they have demanded that Israel be reformed into what they call a “state of all its citizens”, or a liberal democracy.

Leading Israeli politicians, including a recent prime minister, Ehud Olmert, have admitted that discrimination against Palestinians exists. However, they have suggested that it is informal and similar to the discrimination faced by minorities in many democratic western countries.

Civil rights groups, on the other hand, claim that the discrimination is structural to Israel’s definition as a Jewish state. One member of parliament, Ahmed Tibi, has pointedly commented: “This country is Jewish and democratic: Democratic towards Jews, and Jewish toward Arabs.”

A survey published this month by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 49 percent of Israel Jews supported giving more rights to Jewish citizens than to Palestinian citizens. The same survey found that barely more than one-quarter of Palestinian citizens felt a sense of belonging to Israel.

Israel’s domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet, has officially defined the campaign for a state of all its citizens as “subversion”. It has also said it will “thwart the activity of any group or individual seeking to harm the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel, even if such activity is sanctioned by the law”.

The main proponent of this campaign, Azmi Bishara, who led the Balad party, was accused of treason by the Shin Bet a short time later and forced into exile.

‘No citizenship without loyalty’

In recent years, the Israeli right-wing has grown increasingly concerned about challenges to the state’s Jewishness. The Yisrael Beiteinu party – led by Avigdor Lieberman, a former foreign affairs minister and a political ally of Netanyahu – has lobbied for loyalty laws to restrict the Palestinian minority’s political activities. In the past two general elections, Lieberman has campaigned under the slogan, “No citizenship without loyalty”.

Over the summer it was announced that members of Netanyahu’s coalition government were drafting a basic law that would formally define Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people”.

According to reports in the Israeli media, the bill would allow only Jews the right to national self-determination, Hebrew would be the only recognised language, and Jewish religious law would be used as guidance in Israeli courts. Haaretz has argued that the bill would institute “apartheid” in Israel and turn the state into what it called a “Jewish and racist state”.

At the same time, Netanyahu’s government has also established a “Jewish Identity Administration” to work in Jewish schools. It is headed by Avichai Rontzki, a former chief rabbi of the Israel Defence Forces who at the time was accused of bringing more extremist religious views into the military.

The administration’s stated aim is to “restore the State of Israel’s Jewish soul” by teaching pupils to “love the Jewish homeland”. According to leaks to the Israeli media, Berman Shifman, a consultant who advised the goverment on the new unit, warned that the key idea behind the administration was “taken from fascism, not from the field of education”.

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