The Only Democracy in the Middle East
July 27, 2004

Israel, which purports to be “the only democracy in the Middle East,” regularly passes astonishingly racist laws that explicitly discriminate against its own citizens, laws which no right-minded democratically-elected legislature would pass anywhere else in the world; which no Supreme Court elsewhere would uphold; and which no executive body answerable to any democratic legislature anywhere in the world would be allowed to implement. And yet state-sponsored discrimination against non-Jews (Israeli-Arabs as well as immigrants), discrimination of the sort that negates the very essence of democracy, is so rampant in Israel that when the Knesset passes yet another racist law, barely anyone notices.

The parliament of the only democracy in the Middle-East passed, on July 31 2003, “the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law.” The law, which is written specifically for and which therefore discriminates specifically against all non-Jewish citizens of Israel, was initially passed for a period of one year, and then extended for a period of six months last week. For the next six months, therefore, and presumably forever thereafter, citizenship and residency rights are denied to all non-Jewish spouses (and children) of non-Jewish Israeli citizens.

The Citizenship and Entry Law, like many similarly-titled laws of apartheid era South Africa, seeks to restrict the number of non-Jews who live in Israel, and in particular, in east Jerusalem, in order to uphold the “demographic balance” of the Jewish state. As Israeli Minister Dani Neveh observed recently, as do many other Israeli intellectuals and politicians, “the state of Israel clearly has the elemental right to preserve its character as a Jewish state, as the state of the Jewish people.” (emphasis mine). One way to preserve this “elemental right” to racism is by issuing a blanket denial of the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees; another way is by guaranteeing, through the “Law of Return,” automatic citizenship to any Jewish person from any country in the world, regardless of whether that person has ever before stepped foot in Israel; and yet another, more subtle but no less insidious way, is through the Citizenship and Entry Law, which forces all citizens who have committed the double crime of being non-Jewish and of not having married into Jewish families, to leave the state of Israel or - a pleasant choice, this - to live without their families.

Article 2 of the Citizenship and Entry Law states that "…the Minister of the Interior shall not grant citizenship to a resident of the region pursuant to the Citizenship Law and shall not give a resident of the region a permit to reside in Israeli pursuant to the Entry into Israel Law, and the regional commander shall not give such residents a permit to stay in Israel pursuant to the defense legislation in the region". As Article 1 of the law defines "resident of the region" as residents of the West Bank and Gaza, and specifically excludes residents of the Jewish settlements in these areas, what this translates to, essentially, is that all Israeli citizens and Jerusalem ID-bearing Palestinians married to Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza, are barred from applying for citizenship or residency permits for their spouses and even for their children. If they wish to live with their families, therefore, these Israeli citizens and Jerusalem-ID bearing Palestinians must choose between two impossible choices: either have their spouses and children live with them illegally in Israel and thus run the risk of deportation or worse, or move to the occupied territories and thereby run the risk of losing their lives, along with the scores of other daily victims of the occupation.

The Citizenship Law therefore joins the ranks of a host of other Israeli laws that seek to protect the “demographic balance” from the encroachment of non-Jews: laws that prevent non–Jewish naturalized citizens of Israel from uniting with their families; laws that prohibit non-Jewish children of immigrants from applying for citizenship; laws that authorize DNA testing on immigrants to confirm beyond doubt their “Jewish origin;” and, of course, last but not least, the countless racist and inhuman laws of the Occupation.

While the excesses of Israel’s “Jewish democracy” are apparent to all those who care to look for them, this Citizenship Law in particular is so reminiscent of citizenship and residency laws passed by the apartheid regime of South Africa (which also claimed, interestingly enough, to be democratic) that comparisons between the two are unavoidable.