National Suicide: Israel's Three Rights Make a Wrong

Harvard International Review, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

National Suicide: Israel's Three Rights Make a Wrong


In the beginning of 2012, the Supreme Court of Israel upheld a law prohibiting Palestinians who marry Israelis from thereby obtaining Israeli citizenship. The Citizenship and Entry Law, as it is known, applies the same ban to citizens of Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Although it passed the Knesset as an emergency national security provision during the Second Intifada in 2003, the law has become a permanent feature of the Israeli naturalization landscape, and the Supreme Court's ruling ensures that it will remain there for the foreseeable future, lo many, the law represents a crude, unjust attempt to employ the legal system to preserve the ethnic and religious identity of Israel by excluding Arabs and Persians from a path to citizenship open to those of other nationalities. Human rights groups in Israel expressed outrage at the Supreme Court's ruling, contending (along these lines) that the law is discriminatory and violates human rights. Strikingly, Asher Grunis, the justice who drafted the Court's decision, argued that Israel's respect for human rights need not be universal."Human rights do not prescribe national suicide," he wrote. The implication was clear: if Israel's commitment to human rights clashed with policies that seemed necessary for the preservation of its current identity, Israel could permissibly abrogate its rights commitments by enacting discriminatory polities.

Grunis' position is, at its heart, an answer to a worn dilemma in Israeli political discourse: since the Arab population of Israel and Palestine is growing rapidly, until Israel and Palestine reach a viable two-state solution, Israel will have to shed some of its Jewish identity (by welcoming Arabs into the Israeli polity as equal citizens) or some of its democratic character (by excluding Arabs through discriminatory policy). Whether Israel actually faces this dilemma at the moment or not, Grunis's jarring statement is representative of Israel's increasingiy open official (and unofficial) consideration of the second horn. The Supreme Court ruling did not automatically make this principle into national policy, but it confirms that this relatively new political perspective has permeated Israeli government and political discourse and threatens human rights even beyond ethnic issues. Why has much of Israel begun reconsidering its commitment to a robustly democratic society?

Since 2009, Israel has been governed by an uneasy coalition of three right wing parties: the center-right of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud), the nationalist right of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman ( Yisrael Beiteinu), and the religious right of the Shas Party and the United Torah Judaism alliance. Lieberman, who remains under investigation for corruption and has pushed for measures that include a mandatory loyalty oath to Israel as a Jewish state, has garnered the most press on these issues. Nevertheless, the other constituents of the coalition are responsible for damage to Israel's democratic institutions and human rights record. Though they have their differences, each of these factions has proven willing to part with some aspect of Israel's democratic character in order to avert "national suicide." By attempting to preserve what they perceive to be Israel's national identity at the expense of democracy, they have jeopardized both.

Hardline religious conservatives -- represented and relatively protected by, if not always endorsed by, parties like Shas, Degel HaTorah, and Agudat Israel -- have become dramatically more vocal in the last few months, posing a significant threat to Israel's respect for human rights and gender equality. These parties' role in the governing coalition has led to gender segregation at some public functions, at which women have increasingly been prohibited from speaking, presenting, or accepting awards in the presence of male ministers from these parties. When women's faces appear on billboards or posters, they are often blacked out by ultra-Orthodox vandals. …

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