How Israel’s citizenship law legalises racism; Despite court ruling, Israel tells some converts they don’t attend synagogue often enough

Perspectives regarding the different discriminations inherent in Israeli citizenship, starting with respect to Palestinians, highlighting the cultural and political divides:

Introduced in 2003, Israel’s Citizenship and Entry into Israel lawbars 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.

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.

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.

By seeking to enshrine its collective identity as a Jewish state, Israel fails to commit to its declared democratic ideals. Adalahhas 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.

Source: How Israel’s citizenship law legalises racism

And with respect to religious discrimination among Jews:

March 1 will mark a year since the landmark High Court of Justice ruling that recognized non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel for the purpose of the Law of Return.

In theory, the decision meant that any individual converted in Israel by either the Reform or Conservative movements is now eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return. The Reform and Conservative movements, which often complain about discrimination in Israel, were quick to hail this ruling as a major breakthrough and a small step forward in their ongoing struggle for legitimacy and recognition.

Once the ruling was handed down, it had been widely assumed that those individuals who had undergone Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel, and who had been waiting patiently for years for the outcome of the court case, would automatically receive their citizenship papers.

That hasn’t happened, though. In fact, only a relatively small number have.

The group of petitioners who brought the case to the High Court back in 2005 all received citizenship within a month of the ruling, with few or no questions from the Interior Ministry.

The original group consisted of 11 petitioners, but several left Israel or received citizenship by other means, so the ruling was ultimately relevant for only eight of them. All eight had received temporary residency status because they were married to Israelis, but had lost their right to citizenship either because they later divorced or their spouses died.

But another 30 converts with similar stories, who had been granted special permission to stay in Israel until the case was decided, have not been as lucky.

Like the original petitioners, these 30 converts had been married to Israelis and were able to obtain temporary residency status. But because their marriages eventually failed or they were widowed, they were no longer eligible for Israeli citizenship through the process of “family reunification.” Only if their conversions were recognized, therefore, would they be able to avoid deportation.

Because they were given special permission to stay in Israel until the court ruling was delivered, these 30 converts – known as “the group in waiting” – assumed they would be treated exactly like the original petitioners and obtain their citizenship papers quickly.

But among this larger group, only four converts have thus far been approved for citizenship under the Law of Return, 17 are still awaiting responses from the Interior Ministry and nine have been rejected. The grounds for rejection in many of these cases were that the converts did not attend synagogue regularly.

The Israel Religious Action Center – the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel that represented the original petitioners as well as the group in waiting – is now challenging the Interior Ministry on the matter.

‘Genuine’ motives

Under the Law of Return, any Jew by choice who has converted abroad in a “recognized Jewish community,” regardless of the denomination, has the right to immigrate to Israel and receive automatic citizenship. Until a year ago, the Law of Return distinguished between two categories of non-Orthodox converts: those who had converted abroad and were eligible for aliyah and automatic citizenship, and those who had converted in Israel and were not.

Among those who had converted abroad, the Interior Ministry required that they be active in their local Jewish community for at least nine months before making aliyah, so as to ensure that their motives for converting were genuine.

The ministry has decided to apply this same rule to conversions performed in Israel, but much more forcefully. It is now seeking proof that all those converted by the non-Orthodox movements, who are applying for citizenship under the Law of Return, provide proof that they have attended synagogue regularly since they converted. In certain cases, that requires proof of synagogue engagement for as long as 15 years.

“We do not believe this rule should apply in Israel, which as a Jewish state is a unique community,” said attorney Nicole Maor, director of the Legal Aid Center for Olim at IRAC. “Indeed, it is one big Jewish community and by virtue of the fact that they are living here in Israel, these converts are actively involved in a Jewish community.”

IRAC recently sent a letter to the ministry requesting that it not apply this rule in Israel. It has also sent a letter to the Attorney General’s Office charging that the ministry has misinterpreted the essence of the High Court ruling in its treatment of the group in waiting. According to Maor, it has not received responses to either of these letters.

Some of the converts were rejected on the grounds that their conversions were deemed fictitious and undertaken for the sole purpose of obtaining status in Israel.

IRAC has appealed all the rejections with the ministry. Except for one case, in which the appeal has already been rejected, the ministry has yet to respond to the appeals. IRAC is now appealing the one final rejection in Jerusalem District Court.

Asked for comment, Tomer Moskowitz, director of the ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority, said: “It is my job to establish that these were proper conversions and that there were no grounds for disqualifying them – such as, their being done for the sole purpose of obtaining status in Israel. We need time to respond to all the requests, but have already begun handing out our responses. Some people have been happy with these responses, others have not. But we are by no means trying to trick the High Court or to circumvent its ruling.”

The Reform and Conservative movements together convert about 250 people a year in Israel. The vast majority of these are already eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return, since they have at least one Jewish grandparent. Only about 10 percent every year are not eligible under the Law of Return.

Because the non-Orthodox movements, as a matter of principle, do not convert tourists or asylum seekers, this small group consists mainly of spouses or partners of Israelis who have temporary residency status.

Spouses and partners of Israelis are eligible for citizenship under the family reunification process, but this process is not automatic and can take anywhere from four-and-a-half to seven years. Of those converts who are not eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return, the majority eventually obtain citizenship through this process. The exceptions, for whom the High Court ruling is most relevant, would be those whose relationships have fallen apart. Until a year ago, these converts would have lost their right to Israeli citizenship and faced deportation.

Breaking the monopoly

The High Court ruling came in response to the 2005 petition submitted on behalf of a group of temporary residents who had been converted by the Reform and Conservative movements, but whose requests for citizenship under the Law of Return had been denied by the Interior Ministry.

The case dragged on for many years, during which time several unsuccessful attempts were made by the state and the non-Orthodox movements to reach an out-of-court agreement.

In a separate case in 2016, the High Court ruled – despite strong opposition by the Chief Rabbinate – that temporary residents converted by private Orthodox rabbinical courts are eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return.

Following this ruling, which effectively broke the Rabbinate’s monopoly over conversions in Israel, IRAC returned to the court and asked that its case be reevaluated in light of the precedent that had been set. If private Orthodox conversions can be recognized for the purpose of the Law of Return, IRAC’s lawyers told the court, then private conversions performed by the non-Orthodox movements should too.

“This is a civil matter and not a religious matter,” Supreme Court President Esther Hayut wrote in the ruling. “The petitioners came to Israel and went through a conversion process in the framework of a recognized Jewish community and have asked to join the Jewish nation.”

The Interior Ministry has also rejected the citizenship application of the one and only Jew by choice who converted after the High Court ruling.

In December, it turned down the request submitted by Yosef Kibita, a member of the Ugandan Jewish community who was converted through the Conservative movement. He was the first member of the 2,000-strong Abayudaya community to apply for citizenship under the Law of Return.

Kibita, who had been living in Israel for four years, had already converted twice in Uganda. He underwent a third conversion in Israel, at the recommendation of the High Court, after a previous citizenship application had been rejected.

The ministry said the second application had been rejected because the Conservative rabbinical court in Israel had decided to convert Kibita without requiring him to go through any further studies program. IRAC is contesting the decision.

Although the High Court ruling recognized non-Orthodox conversions for citizenship purposes, these conversions are not recognized by the Rabbinate. As a result, Reform and Conservative converts – whether the conversions took place in Israel or abroad – are prohibited from marrying in Israel.

Source: Despite court ruling, Israel tells some converts they don’t attend synagogue often enough