Can you be an Israeli citizen and what does that mean anyway? – Alice Rothchild in Palestine and Israel, part 16

June 21, 2014 Citizenship

I know Jonathan Cook explained this last year, but the topic is so contorted and bizarre I am going to give it another try and forgive me if it is not crystal clear.  We are sitting in the charming Al Mutran Guest House surrounded by glass cases of embroidery and pottery in what was once a Palestinian home, patios and garden on the second floor, serene views, puffy clouds.  Looks can be deceiving.  I notice that a hulky four wheel drive vehicle has actually driven up the stone stairs to park in front of the guest house at a 45 degree angle, either out of desperation for a parking space or perhaps because Nazareth is a place of angels and miracles and unimaginable possibility.

So one of the first dilemmas facing the new State of Israel, (after giving all the Jews in the world the Law of Return which entitles them to Israeli citizenship and theoretically a safe place from anti-Semitism) is how do you know if a non-Jewish Arab type person is a present absentee/refugee from 1948 or an “infiltrator” who has snuck back in to harvest olives, retrieve belongings, take revenge, etc etc. The “kosher” Palestinians were giving residency and in 1952, official citizenship, but since Ben Gurion and his friends are building a Jewish state here, the other goal is to limit the number of Palestinian citizens in any way possible.

So here, according to Jonathan, are some of the more quirky facts:

1. If an Israeli citizen (who is “Arab”) wants to marry a sweetheart from the Occupied Territories, since the Oslo Accords in 1993, it is almost impossible for said sweetheart to get Israeli citizenship. If an Israeli Palestinian (there is no satisfactory word for this category) applies for naturalization for his/her spouse, the process can take five years, and when it is not successful, there is a legal challenge which can go to the high court. In 1999, the court ruled that said spouse should get citizenship, so the Israeli government passed the 2003 Citizenship and Residency Laws that froze all applications and has basically functionally banned marriage across the Green Line. Remember the goal is not to allow one more Palestinian to become an Israeli citizen by any means possible!

2. In Britain, Jonathan was a British national and British citizen, but in Israel there are 137 (yes 1-3-7) nationalities and the courts have agreed twice that citizenship and nationality are different and confer different rights. (Get a cup of coffee and read this really slowly.) Nationality (i.e. for example: Jewish is a nationality) trumps citizenship because it is very important that all the citizens of Israel should not be legally equal in a Jewish state, so this factoid is the key to institutionalized discrimination. So after a long administrative battle, Jonathan became an Israeli citizen with British nationality because his wife has Arab nationality. To make things even more confusing, on Israeli passports (don’t want to look bad at passport control in JFK,) nationality is written as Israeli, but on the Israeli ID that everyone must have, nationality is listed as *****. Yes that is a row of stars. I saw Jonathan’s ID card. The star ship identity is a consequence of the big debate over WHO IS REALLY A JEW. The state uses the Nazi definition (sort of poetic justice) that if you have one Jewish grandparent, then by law you are a Jew.  But the Orthodox rabbinate, which controls much of civic and personal law, uses the you-got-to-have-a-Jewish-mother rule.  This is a major social and political nightmare and headache.

In the 1990s, one million Russians arrive in Israel and 350,000 are not Jewish, or they are what are called “grey Jews.” Confused? So nice Russian Jewish man marries nice Russian Christian lady and they arrive in Tel Aviv with their four lovely children. By state law, the man and his children are Jews, by religious law only the man is a Jew. This is critical because, for example, the non-Jewish children cannot marry in Israel because all Jewish marriages are ONLY done by Orthodox rabbis, there is no civil marriage. (Hence the quick wedding in Cyprus). So there was a big fight about what nationality to put on their Israeli ID cards and the court agreed that a row of ***** was a good solution.  The underlying motivation as I have said is to limit non-Jews and to keep resources and privileges flowing to the Jews rather than to everyone else.

When the Ethiopian Jews were “rescued” and airlifted “home” they were not considered Jewish enough by the Israeli rabbinate and so they had to (re)convert to Judaism which is a challenging process and also involves a commitment to sending your children to religious schools where they will study Torah but skip science, literature, multiculturalism, etc etc. Factoid: the educational ministry recently ruled that evolution MUST be taught in all Israeli schools which implies that it was not before the ruling.

But it is not that simple, (not that it was simple in the first place). A knowledgeable person can tell if someone is a Jew by their ID number, by their father and grandfather’s names listed on the card, or if the date of birth is in the Hebrew or Gregorian calendar.  Pretty sneaky if you ask me.

We are all a bit cross-eyed at this point, but Jonathan continues. Israel has two fundamental sets of rights: the core rights related to citizenship and the rights related to nationality.  Nationality always trumps citizenship. There are currently 57 laws that institutionally discriminate against non-Jews and the discrimination is so entrenched it is invisible to most of the folks who love Israel as a symbol of Jewish redemption and justice.

So examples:
1. Immigration: Jews can come anytime, Palestinians are totally unwelcome in an endless variety of ways 2. Water: water is a core right but its allocation and cost are related to the nationality of the recipient. Palestinians in area C (the part of the West Bank totally under Israeli control, remember the occupier is responsible for the welfare of the occupied? but that is another story) are not entitled to water because they are not citizens of Israel while Moishe who is watering his lawn in the settlement next door gets lots of water because he is a citizen. Palestinians in general pay much more for water and water is subsidized by the state if it is used for agricultural or farming practices like in kibbutizim or moshavim which by definition are only for Jews. At some point, I think in response to Land Day (look it up), Palestinians were allowed to keep some of their farmland, but not allocated any agricultural water so they are forced to grow olive trees which are highly drought resistant.   If they do not farm for three years, then the land is officially “fallow” and seized by the state.

3. Land: 93% of the land in Israel is nationalized for Jewish use only and controlled by the Israel Land Authority (80%) and the Jewish National Fund (13%).  If a Jew “buys” land it is actually a 99 year lease that can be passed on to future generations.  The family is the “guardian” of the Jewish land.  Palestinians can’t do this obviously.

Jonathan argues that in Israel, nationality is really what the rest of us think of as citizenship and citizenship is really more like residency. Nationality is the only thing that really counts and Jews from Beijing to Buenos Aires are all potential members of this nation state.  Everyone else is treated more like (temporary) residents who just happen to be passing through and hopefully will leave real soon.

But alas, Ben Gurion’s dream of an Arab-rein state was not fulfilled and after Oslo, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship begin to pay more attention to that citizenship thing. Bishara, a Palestinian Knesset member, founds a party called Balad and introduces a fascinating concept: A state for all its citizens. In 2006, Prime Minister Olmert meets with his buddies in the Shin Bet and issues a statement that this concept constitutes subversion and that the “State of Israel will use any means necessary, including non-democratic means” to foil this plan.  Bishara leaves the country and is informed that if he returns he will be tried for treason.  I think he is now in Qatar or somewhere, working as a journalist.  So think about this: When Palestinians say (as if they actually believe in democracy) that they want equal citizenship, this is considered subversion or treason. In the US we call this state of affairs institutionalized legal discrimination, Jim Crow, or Apartheid.  In Israel we call this normal.

Alice Rothchild MD, is Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School. She serves on the steering committee for American Jews for a Just Peace- Boston, and has worked with medical delegations to Israel and the Occupied Territories with the AJJP Health and Human Rights Project. She is the author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience (Pluto, 2007; 2010) and director of the 2013 documentary Voices Across the Divide.

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