How Israel's citizenship law legalises racism

7 min read
22 February, 2022

Introduced in 2003, Israel’s Citizenship and Entry into Israel law bars Palestinians who are married to Israelis, often Palestinian citizens of Israel, from obtaining permanent residency or being naturalised as citizens of the state.

In 2007, it was extended to include citizens from countries deemed “enemy states” like Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.

The law has been renewed every year since, until last July, when the Knesset failed to secure a majority to renew it. The newly appointed PM Naftali Bennett was undermined by members of his coalition, particularly those from the Arab party Ra’am and some rebels from his Yamina party, who voted against extending the law.

Former PM Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party - traditionally avid supporters of the law - also blocked the renewal. The move was interpreted as an attempt by Netanyahu to follow through on his promise to "bring down [Bennett’s] dangerous government.”

The failure was evidently more about the internal rivalries and less about a principled reconsideration of the controversial law. Another vote was only a matter of time.

"Israel's Citizenship and Entry into Israel law bars Palestinians who are married to Israeli citizens from obtaining permanent residency or being naturalised"

Early this month, with help from the opposition, the bill introduced by right-wing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to reinstate the temporary law passed with a 44-5 majority in the first reading in the Knesset plenum.

Members of Knesset (MKs) also approved a stricter version of the bill proposed by MK Simcha Rothman from the far-right Religious Zionism party, which suggests further restrictions on immigration to Israel, including limitations on temporary and permanent residency as well as citizenship.

Ra'am, the only Arab party in the governing coalition, and the left-wing Meretz party opposed the bill but failed to influence the vote. In response, the Arab Joint List called for a no-confidence vote in the government.

The two versions of the bill are expected to merge before the second and third reading at the Knesset in the coming weeks. Shaked tweeted that reinstating the law saw “Zionism and common sense prevail.”

Security grounds

The law was originally enacted against the backdrop of Palestinian attacks in Israel during the first years of the Second Intifada (2000-2005). Some of the attackers were allegedly Palestinians who received residency status in Israel through family unification proceedings.

Live Story

Soon after the March 2002 suicide attack in Haifa’s Matza restaurant by a naturalised Palestinian from the West Bank, the Israeli authorities took the step to impose an en bloc prohibition on granting residency or citizenship rights to any Palestinians from the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.

The state said the move was necessary since it was almost impossible to individually examine the security risks presented by every person seeking family unification.

Petitions by rights groups in 2006 and again in 2012 to the Israeli Supreme Court challenging the security argument on the grounds that the law violated basic human rights were rejected.

The majority of judges agreed that the law violated the human right to family life, yet upheld the law on security grounds. Citing “state sovereignty” and the “state of war,” they maintained that, like other states, Israel is legally entitled to limit immigration of foreign nationals into its territory, including the spouses of Israeli citizens.

The limitations are especially justified if those nationals belonged to countries deemed as “enemy states.”

In 2016, Israel granted a few applicants “temporary permits” based on “humanitarian situations” after petitions to address years-old applications secured a Supreme Court hearing, but these were just a one-time relief based on an arbitrary cut-off date, argued a UN press release.

A woman holds up a sign against Israel's controversial Citizenship law, during a demonstration by Palestinian-Israeli's ahead of a vote by the Knesset on the legislation, outside the Knesset building in Jerusalem on July 5, 2021. [Getty]
A woman holds up a sign against Israel's controversial citizenship law, during a demonstration by Palestinian-Israelis ahead of a vote by the Knesset on the legislation, outside the Knesset building in Jerusalem on 5 July 2021. [Getty]

Legalising discrimination

One of the judges who opposed the law, Chief Justice Aharon Barak, maintained that it violates the Palestinian minority’s basic right to family life (to live together as a family) and equality. Even though he supported the state’s security rationale, Barak argued that human rights should be protected during the time of war.

Barak’s concerns were elaborately echoed in various international human rights treaties. In 2014, the UN Human Rights Committee found that the law violates Israel’s obligations under international law. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in 2019 expressed deep concerns over Israel’s discriminatory citizenship legislation.

The Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Adalah, one of several rights groups that petitioned to Israel’s Supreme Court to revoke the law, described it as “one of the most racist and discriminatory laws in the world.”

The organisation rejected the security argument, saying the law is chiefly motivated by demographic concerns and its goal is to create separate citizenship tracks for Israel’s Jewish and Palestinian citizens that ensure a system of Jewish supremacy.

"Rights groups and scholars have long argued that the notion of 'Jewish and democratic', as stipulated in the 1948 Declaration of Independence, is paradoxical"

In its recent report on Israel, Amnesty International referred to the ban on family unification as part of the larger system of discrimination and oppression that amount to apartheid.

Since 1948, the organisation reported, Israeli officials from across the political spectrum have emphasised the overarching objective of maintaining Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, and their intention to limit Palestinian access to land, resources, and services. Discriminatory laws to control Palestinian demography, such as by denying Palestinians the right to family unification, are central to this mission.

While the citizenship law is discriminatory against all Palestinians, it primarily targets Israel’s Palestinian minority, who are viewed as a threat to the stability and continuity of a Jewish nation-state from within.

Here, the concept of sovereignty allegedly entails Israel’s right to shape and maintain the “state character,” namely its “Jewish identity.” This identity is the means through which Jews claim ownership of the state, and non-Jewish citizens - particularly those of Palestinian descent - are only recognised as having individual rights within it.

Theoretically, Israel is similar to other states in creating and maintaining a pattern of state-ethnic relations necessary for the establishment of internal cohesion and, inevitably, state security. In practice, however, Israel is different in understanding national security mostly in terms of the security of the Jewish people, not all the citizens of the state.

Live Story

By seeking to enshrine its collective identity as a Jewish state, Israel fails to commit to its declared democratic ideals. Adalah has pointed out that Israel is the world’s only democracy that “denies residency or citizenship to spouses of its own citizens on the basis of their spouses’ national, racial, or ethnic affiliation, while simultaneously labelling them as enemies.”

Several rights groups and scholars have long argued that the notion of “Jewish and democratic,” as stipulated in the 1948 “Declaration of Independence,” is paradoxical. It is practically impossible to apply the fundamental principles of democracy, specifically those related to the equal political and legal rights of all citizens, yet continue to determine the character of the state on ethnoreligious grounds.

The Advocacy Centre for Arab Citizens in Israel, Mossawa, states that the Jewish character of the state has been used to bypass democratic principles of equality. This is not exclusive to citizenship legislation, but also visible in a series of laws - over twenty of them since 2001 alone - that explicitly discriminate on the basis of ethnicity.

The 1952 Citizenship Law, for instance, which sets the primary legal ground for its 2003 successor, explicitly stipulates that there is “no Israeli nationality save under this Law.” As such, it does not grant rights and benefits on the basis of citizenship; rather on the grounds of ethno‐nationality.

"It is practically impossible to apply the fundamental principles of democracy, specifically those related to the equal political and legal rights of all citizens, yet continue to  determine the character of the state on ethnoreligious grounds"

This rationale was emphasised in the 2018 Nation-State Law, which makes the right to the land exclusive to Jews, encourages settlements as a right, and downgrades Arabic, spoken by over 20% of the population, to a “special status” language.

Attempts to challenge discriminatory laws are stifled through, among others, the 2002 Knesset Members Law, which strips MKs of their parliamentary immunity for expressions that reject the existence of the state as a Jewish state. The law effectively curbs the ability of Palestinian MKs to challenge the state’s Jewish identity and, by extension, related legislation.

Israeli legislators took advantage of the heightened securitised environment in the post-Oslo period to pass laws previously deemed indefensible and undemocratic. Encouraged by the significant rise in right-wing tendencies in Israeli-Jewish society, the Israeli state solidified the myth that the Palestinian minority is a threat to the state that requires legislative actions.

A stricter version of the citizenship law will further tighten the screws on Palestinians in Israel. For the nearly 13,000 of them who are married to Israeli citizens and whose stay in Israel is based on temporary documentation, the prospect of permanent family unification is elusive.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa