The slow death of Israeli citizenship

Racism in strange places

As the Right consolidates its power over nearly every sphere of Israeli politics, it is slowly turning citizenship into a matter of ideology. Non-Jewish citizens aren’t the only ones who will suffer.

By Marzuq Al-Halabi

Thousands of Israeli Jews wave flags as they mark Jerusalem Day in Damascus Gate on their way to the Western Wall, East Jerusalem, May 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Thousands of Israeli Jews wave flags as they mark Jerusalem Day in Damascus Gate on their way to the Western Wall, East Jerusalem, May 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The concept of citizenship in Israel has always suffered from significant inadequacies, whether due to the Law of Return or to state policies that make acquiring citizenship an extremely difficult feat. The current situation, for example, allows the state to claim that Bedouin citizens in the Negev aren’t citizens at all and that their blue ID cards were issued to them by mistake, even if they and their tribe were here long before the establishment of the state. Moreover, the situation allows the state to convince its High Court of Justice to uphold, time and time again, a law that restricts Palestinian spouses on both sides of the Green Line from family reunification.

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The same goes for foreign workers and asylum seekers — they are good for doing work that Israelis aren’t willing to do, yet we must prevent them from obtaining citizenship at all costs, while denying them human rights. Furthermore, the state has thus far succeeded at convincing the High Court that there is no such thing as an “Israeli nation.”

Analyzing the current state of Israeli citizenship is no less problematic. Citizenship, after all, is not a formal issue limited to identification cards and papers. There are various layers of Israeli citizenship: one for Jews and one for Arabs; one for veteran citizens and one for immigrants; one for those who live in the center of the country and one for those in the periphery; those who are rich and others who are not. Arab citizens in Israel will justifiably claim that the principle of equality — a foundational principle in any democracy — does not apply to them in many aspects of life, thus infringing upon their rights.

In fact, “equality” does not appear in legislation, nor in any of Israel’s basic laws; it exists only in a number of landmark High Court rulings. Moreover, discrimination against Arabs and other groups exists under the guise of bypassing citizenship through national institutions that privilege Jewish citizens. Even the Law of Return gives preference to a Jewish person living abroad over the Arab in Israel.

Palestinian citizens take part in a general strike in solidarity with Palestinians in Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza, in the northern town of Sakhnin, on October 13, 2015. (photo: Omar Sameer)

Palestinian citizens take part in a general strike in solidarity with Palestinians in Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza, in the northern town of Sakhnin, on October 13, 2015. (photo: Omar Sameer)

If we look at the concept of fundamental citizenship as it pertains to the allocation of resources — material, symbolic, and spatial — we will understand the depth of the inequality that Arab citizens suffer. The indigenous population, which makes up approximately 20 percent of Israel’s citizens, lives and exists on three percent of Israeli land. Every Arab community has lost approximately seven percent of the land owned by its residents before the Nakba in 1948, through land expropriations for “the benefit of the public,” enshrined in laws and regulations passed for this very purpose.

The state has managed to build 700 new towns since its founding, yet not a single Arab town has been built. Israel’s Arab population has for years been suffering from a lack of infrastructure development, services, and budgets. A new law would allow the demolition of Arab homes while restricting the authority of the courts to interfere. Israel is defined as a Jewish country subject to continual Judaization, in which the Arab is viewed as a nuisance, an invader, even a foreigner. The Arab citizen is entirely excluded from the symbols of the state, even though he/she is used as a fig leaf in its ceremonies, or as a way of legitimizing the state in the eyes of its victims.

Not only Arabs

The political space is an additional realm in which we can analyze the essence of citizenship vis-a-vis Arab citizens. Arabs have always been excluded from decision-making positions. In politics and in the economy, they have been dependent on Israeli Jews — consumers of politics, rather than producers.

This trend has only worsened under the formal policies of Israel’s right-wing government over the past decade. The ethnic democracy creates at least two kinds of citizenships: that of the preferred ethnic group and that of those who do not belong to it. But that does not end with Israel’s Arab citizens. The cheapening of citizenship threatens all those who oppose the government’s policies, even if they make up the bread and butter of the country’s preferred ethnic group.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, MK David Bitan, Culture Minister Miri Regev and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a Knesset plenum session, December 5, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, MK David Bitan, Culture Minister Miri Regev and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a Knesset plenum session, December 5, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It is far easier today to torpedo basic political activities through divide and conquer tactics, delegitimization, and deeming people anti-Israeli traitors. That was done to Breaking the Silence and other civil society organizations who deal with human rights. The attacks on cultural institutions who are unwilling to give up on the role of art — to critique the powers that be and bring forward the voice of the silenced, to speak out against the regime and corruption — is a testament to the attempt to silence artistic freedom of expression.

Death to the citizen, long live the regime

Slowly but surely, Israeli citizenship is diminishing in the face of the Right’s crusade. Citizenship has been damaged by a regime that is attempting to draw its boundaries according to a specific ideology. And all those who stray from that ideology or oppose it will have their rights compromised. What is the significance of restricting the right of Israeli citizens from demonstrating in front of the attorney general’s house if not an attempt to clamp down on political rights that are part and parcel of our civic participation?

After decades of “ethnic citizenship,” it seems that Israel is headed toward “ideological citizenship.” In totalitarian Communist regimes of the past, this type of citizenship was characterized by doing away with society for the benefit of the state, and the state for the benefit of the party. Thus, citizenship is wholly negated for the purpose of praising the regime and its symbols.

Tell me that this is far from happening in Israel for some reason or another, and I’ll tell you: no other situation can arise from the right’s policies — only ideological citizenship, in which the regime will live and the citizen will perish. The nation-state law will only be the first constitutional step toward this kind of citizenship. Because all blind nationalism that sanctifies itself will immediately oppress all those who dare call it into question, especially from within. Jews have already been in this situation — as victims.

Marzuq Al-Halabi is a jurist, journalist, author. He writes regularly for Al-Hayat. This post was originally published in Hebrew on Local Call.