As Israel is witnessing yet again, the Jewish state is held to a different standard, one that emboldens critics to take potshots at will. Israel’s parliament on Thursday, citing security concerns, passed a law temporarily halting the practice of granting Israeli citizenship to Palestinians who marry Israeli-Arabs—and the rhetorical barrage began almost immediately.
The Independent of London’s headline typified much of the coverage: “Israel imposes ‘racist’ marriage law.” Anti-Israel types are up in arms because the Knesset pushed through a bill (which expires in one year) that requires Israelis who marry Palestinians either to move to the West Bank or the Gaza Strip or to live apart from each other.
But breathless media coverage notwithstanding, Israel’s law is hardly harsh by international standards.
Most Arab nations are far more restrictive in granting citizenship—though the comparison is not exactly apt since none is a democracy. Many have so-called “grandfather” clauses, which require someone’s grandfather to be a citizen in order for that person to be a citizen. In many Arab nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Syria, there are people whose families have lived there for two or three generations—but as non-citizens the entire time.
European nations are generally less restrictive than Arab countries in granting citizenship, but they don’t automatically grant citizenship to foreigners marrying one of their citizens. And in most countries, such as France and Germany, the newlywed foreigner has to apply for a visa that might not be issued.
Even America, the nation of immigrants, has similar restrictions on foreigners marrying U.S. citizens. Stories abound of foreigners who marry U.S. citizens, only to be denied visas to live in America. But establishing residency is only the first step, as the foreign spouse must go through a lengthy process in applying for citizenship.
But just because Israel’s law is not “racist” by international standards, does that make it the right move? Not necessarily. Though the legislation cleared the Knesset with a two-thirds majority, even members of the right-wing Likud party (which sponsored the bill) had reservations. The hawkish speaker of the parliament, Rudy Rivlin, actually opposed it, saying that it made Palestinians “guilty until proven innocent.”
There are legitimate reasons—rooted in both demography and security—for supporting the bill. Arabs account for roughly 20 percent of Israeli citizens, a percentage that will continue to grow as the Arab birth rate outpaces the Jewish one. Then add to that mix 100,000 Palestinians who have come to Israel by marrying Israeli-Arabs in the past decade. In a state that is fighting to maintain its Jewish identity—a majority Arab citizenry would mean the end of Israel as we know it—this is a very real concern.
The official reason, though, given by the bill’s sponsors is that 19 Palestinian terrorists have obtained “blue cards”—the equivalent of American “green cards” that grant legal residency rights—that allowed them to perpetrate attacks that resulted in the deaths of 87 people. But, as one Israeli who supports the new law asked me, “Why now? Why not at the start of the intifada?” In many respects, the timing is a bit odd.
When I was in Israel two months ago, I was struck by the number of Israelis—from left-leaning Labor types to hawkish Likud members—who believe that Israel has an obligation to improve the status of its Arab citizens, who have full representational rights in the parliament but don’t enjoy many of the same economic and career opportunities available to Jewish citizens. In a recent report to the United Nations, the Israeli government said that strides have been made, but much still needs to be done to improve the quality of life for its 1.2 million Arab citizens.
Though Israel does not deserve the drubbing it has received—it only affects Palestinians, not other Arabs, for example—the headlines alone show Israel could have handled the politics far more deftly. It could be that many in the Knesset wanted a “hawkish” bill to offset Sharon’s recent “dovish” actions in the name of the “roadmap.” The operative question, though, is the one posited by the Knesset speaker: does Israel need such a sweeping law to solve the problem? The answer given to me by one Israeli official makes about as much sense as any other: “It’s tough.”