The Israeli Supreme Court has further cemented discrimination in Israel against non-Jews in a decision that highlights the non-democratic basis of the state, writes Khaled Amayreh in occupied East Jerusalem
October 23, 2013
A recent decision by the Israeli Supreme Court that asserted "Jewish nationality" over "Israeli nationality" has further alienated Israel’s large Arab minority and rekindled the old question of whether it is possible to really reconcile parochial Jewish laws with broad democratic principles.
The court rejected a request by 21 mostly Jewish Israeli citizens to be registered as "Israeli nationals" rather than Jews or Arabs.
The rejection of Israeli nationality by the Israeli state, the petitioners argued, was utterly undemocratic and exposed the state’s non-Jewish citizens to institutionalised discrimination.
Critics, both Jewish and Arab, described the decision as an undemocratic move with a disingenuous legal façade, aimed at perpetuating the status of non-Jews — particularly Israel’s Palestinian citizens — who comprise about 20 per cent of the population as inherently lesser or inferior citizens.
Israeli officials and supporters of the court decision, however, argue that it is vital to maintain Israel’s "Jewish character", regardless of the import of democracy and equality as the basis of citizenship.
PR-savvy Israeli spokespersons contend the decision has no impact on the issue of discrimination against Israeli non-Jews, adding that Israel’s Jewish identity shouldn’t collide with the civil rights of ethnic and religious minorities.
JEWISH AND DEMOCRATIC? Israeli officials often claim that Israel is both Jewish and democratic in nature. Critics, however, argue that this is "an empty slogan" devoid of truth since Israel can’t be both Talmudic and democratic.
"This is a big lie. Israel can either be Jewish or democratic; it can’t be both, pure and simple," says Hanna Issa, a prominent legal expert in Ramallah.
"And we all know that whenever there is the slightest conflict between the 'Jewish’ and 'democratic’ aspects, which comes first."
Issa said Israel intended to achieve two strategic goals by "invoking the Jewish state mantra".
First, the expulsion and ethnic cleansing of the two million strong Arab community. Second, preventing the repatriation of Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes when Israel was created in 1948.
Issa adds: "When non-Jewish citizens in Israel demand equality as citizens they are confronted with the 'Jewish state’ mantra, but when the international community criticises Israel for the often brazen discrimination against its non-Jewish citizens, the democratic state mantra is invoked. So, we are effectively talking about a totally dishonest discourse."
NORMAL NATION-STATE: Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, denies any contradiction between his "reassertion of Israel’s national Jewish character" on the one hand and possible discrimination against the state’s non-Jewish citizens.
"Israel is Jewish in the same sense that France is French and Norway is Norwegian. The two European countries maintain their respective national identities despite the existence of ethnic and religious minorities in both countries," Palmor says.
Palmor argues that despite the existence of the Kvens in Norway, Norway remains Norwegian although the Kvens are not Norwegian. (The Kvens are a group of people who originated from the northern Baltic Sea areas of Finland and Sweden but who immigrated to Norway).
"And in France, there are millions of French citizens of North African origin, but France remains French. And the same thing applies to Israel more or less. There are some non-Jewish minorities, but Israel remains a Jewish country. It is the state of the Jewish people. This is exactly what the Supreme Court’s decision tried to assert."
Palmor’s comparisons are strongly disputed by Jewish as well as Arab intellectuals.
Hasan Jabarin is the head of Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. He describes Palmor’s analogies between Israel and France as "corrupt, scandalous, utterly mendacious and insulting to people’s intelligence".
"In France, once you are granted French citizenship, you become a full citizen. They don’t ask about your ethnicity or religion or about the genealogy of your mother. In Israel, your Israeli citizenship doesn’t help you if you are not Jewish," argued Jabarin, a veteran lawyer, in interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.
He added: "The French-ness of France and the Jewish-ness of Israel are not the same thing. To claim they are is an insult to truth and common sense. In France, one can become a French citizen without having to convert to Catholicism or Christianity in general, but in Israel one can’t become Jewish unless one has a Jewish mother or converts to Judaism according to Jewish Orthodox rituals. These are the proscriptions of Jewish religious law.
"Besides, France is a state of all its citizens, but Israel is defined as the state of the Jewish people, as the Israeli Supreme Court repeatedly refused to define Israel as a state of all its citizens."
Jabarin argued that Israel’s "brazenly discriminatory laws" are aimed at achieving two main goals: denying Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes and villages in what is now Israel, and curtailing the demographic growth of Israel’s Arab community, even by way of expulsion and ethnic cleansing if need be.
"That is the reason [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu keeps demanding that the Palestinians recognise Israel as an exclusively Jewish state."
WHAT IS JEWISH? Palmor and other Israelis don’t claim to possess a unified or monolithic definition of who is a Jew. But, arguably for public relations purposes, Israeli hasbara (propaganda) spokespersons would claim that being Jewish means belonging to "the Jewish ethnicity".
However, according to a recent survey as many as 50 per cent of Israeli Jews define being Jewish as observance of Jewish religious law.
For Gideon Levy, a veteran Israeli journalist and intellectual, mixing "nationality with religion is the mother of all problems".
"If being Jewish means religion, then secular Jews like myself can’t define themselves as Jews. But if it is nationality, then I am an Israeli national first and foremost."
Levy labels as hypocritical many American and European Jews who support institutionalised discrimination against non-Jewish Israeli citizens, whereas in their respective countries they aggressively and doggedly defend secularism and the principle of equality, irrespective of ethnicity and religion.
"Israel can’t be both Jewish and democratic. And under existing conditions, a non-Jewish citizen in Israel has no chance of having real equality with a Jew," Levy says.
Ada Ravon, a prominent lawyer from Tel Aviv who deals with civil rights issues, concurs: "There is no chance for a non-Jewish citizen in Israel to obtain full and complete equality. This is at least how I see it under existing circumstances.
"According to the Law of Return, Israel is a Jewish state, and non-Jews can’t be equal citizens."
Responding to cwritics, Palmor admits, "there might be problems here and there," but "there are sufficient laws in Israel that guarantee basic equality." He adds: "Politics is politics and not every law can pass in the Knesset."
Chaim Cohen, a Jewish intellectual, tried to coin a personal, non-controversial definition of who is a Jew. He argued that a Jew is one who feels Jewish. The vast majority of religious Jews rejected the definition, calling it diluted, ambiguous and too abstract.