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The roots of Israel's most racist law

Israel’s most draconian laws may have been passed by the current right-wing government, but the stage was set long ago by the Israeli Left.

Reem Bedran, mother of three, married since 2002, Zimar. (Shiraz Grinbaum/Activestills.org)

Reem Bedran, mother of three, married since 2002, Zimar. (Shiraz Grinbaum/Activestills.org)

With a majority of 65 votes, the Knesset approved last week the extension of an order to prevent family reunification in Israel. Of Palestinian families, of course. Jews are welcome to continue and reunify as much as they please.

As always, the pretext for approving this draconian law, which deprives Palestinian citizens who fell in love with a Palestinian from the occupied territories (not to mention a Syrian, Lebanese, or Iranian citizen) from living with their loved one in their country, is security-based. According to Wikipedia, the law was written “following suicide attacks in Israel by Palestinian terrorists from 2000 during the Second Intifada, which targeted Israelis, in which many Israelis were murdered or wounded.” However the racist component of the law is so invisible that it was passed as a temporary order, and therefore the Knesset must extend it every year.

Thus we are forced every year to watch the farce foretold in which our elected officials discuss and heavily weigh the advantages of the law, as opposed to the harm it may cause, and reach the same surprising conclusion each time, according to which there is no choice but to extend the law. Or as Zionist Union MK Merav Michaeli put it during a committee hearing to discuss the extension of the measure: “This committee was established with the real purpose — even by those who see this law as a necessary evil — so that it is not extended every year without showing how we can improve it and make it more efficient. It is clear from what we have heard here that there is a need for humanitarian amendments, for everyone’s sake.” In light of the support by Zionist Union MKs for the law, I am tempted to chalk up Michaeli’s remarks to self-irony. Unfortunately today, even that is too much to expect of her.

Racist legislation with cosmetic and “humanitarian” amendment may be the most precise way to characterize the oxymoron of “Jewish and democratic.” Zionist Union, which voted in support of extending the law, exempted itself from this dilemma long ago: now that they refuse to be defined as a left-wing party, these misgivings no longer bother them. But in fact what needs to be explained is Meretz’s objection, along with that of the Joint List, to the law — rather than the support for the law by Zionist parties.

When democracy is dependent on the majority

As a rule, the different strands of Zionism have always made clear that it will choose the “Jewish” over the “democratic.” And because this tension is built in, the decision in favor of a Jewish character is expressed day in and day out in various ways, whether nationally — while denying the national rights of the Palestinian minority in the country — and when it comes to the rights of private individuals, when it violates their rights as Israeli citizens.

As a Zionist party, Meretz fundamentally lends credence to the first component of this project: exclusivist Jewish nationalism necessarily means negating the national rights of Palestinians in Israel. Otherwise, Meretz would find itself supporting a Balad-style binationalism. Thus it is obvious why Meretz spends much of its resources on the struggle for individual rights. On paper, there is no reason for the Jewish and democratic state not to grant equal rights to Arab citizens, including the possibility of living with their partners in their country.

Hadash chairman Ayman Odeh (left) and Meretz chairwoman Zehava Galon speak at the left-wing protest in Tel Aviv, May 28, 2016. (Oren Ziv/Activestils.org)

Hadash chairman Ayman Odeh (left) and Meretz chairwoman Zehava Galon speak at the left-wing protest in Tel Aviv, May 28, 2016. (Oren Ziv/Activestils.org)

Herein lies the failure with which the Zionist Left refuses to contend: the pretense of maintaining Israel’s Jewish and democratic character is at its core a demographic struggle. In order for the Jewish state to be able to allow itself to be democratic — at least when it comes to individual rights (as opposed to national rights) — vis-à-vis its Arab citizens, it needs a significant demographic advantage. Only then will it be able to tell itself stories about democracy when it comes to a national minority without endangering the Jewish character it is so intent on maintaining. This is precisely why since its founding the state has refrained from establishing a new Arab city, despite population growth and a housing crisis in Arab society. This is why the state needs the Jewish National Fund to continue and “Judaize” land. This is why the state needs legislation that unabashedly restricts the growth of the minority. All under the guise of different security-based explanations.

The racist element and the demographic motivations behind the law banning Palestinian family reunification were clear to Meretz’s members. Party leader Zehava Galon responded to the law’s extension: “There were many interior ministers who over the years explained that this law was necessary because there is a demographic danger, because Arab residents of Israel are bringing in women from the territories. After that it turned into a security danger. The truth is that we have a right-wing government that hates Arabs, which excludes them and uses terrorist attacks as an excuse for its disgraceful actions.” Galon accurately recognizes the demographic rationale behind the law, but instead of bravely looking at its roots, she rushes to pin the blame on the “right-wing government that hates Arabs.”

Let this be a reminder: this is not the product of the Right’s hatred toward Arabs, but a genetic component of Zionism itself. As long as the social contract between citizens and their state is anchored in a framework that grants one national group privileges at the expense of the other, all while seeking to maintain democratic pretentious, demography will continue to be the name of the game.

If after 70 years the Zionist Left is still unable to admit to this simple truth and continues to insist on the oxymoron of “Jewish and democratic,” it must, at the very least, be fair enough not to place the responsibility for the consequences on the Right alone.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Cal. Read it here.

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