Human rights equated with national suicide

Israel’s high court upholds a law preventing Palestinians from living with their spouses in Israel.

Israel''s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
The Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law aims to keep Palestinians and Israelis apart  [EPA]

The Israeli government has repeatedly demanded that Palestinians recognise Israel as a “Jewish state”. Recent developments in the Knesset and High Court are exposing exactly what this means, and in doing so, throw the spotlight on the issue that the ‘peace process’ – and Western governments – refuse to tackle.

On Wednesday, Israel’s High Court rejected a legal challenge to the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law, by a six to five vote. The law, first passed as a ‘temporary’ measure in 2003 and renewed ever since, prevents Palestinians from the Occupied Territories (and those from ‘enemy states’) from living with their spouses in Israel.

For thousands of Palestinian families, Israel’s law means a choice between moving abroad, living apart, or living in Israel illegally. No wonder that the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) condemned what it described as a “racist law” for the way it harms “the very texture of the lives of families whose only sin is the Palestinian blood that runs in their veins”.

Legal rights centre Adalah, who have been deeply involved with challenges to the law, said that the High Court had “approved a law the likes of which do not exist in any democratic state in the world, depriving citizens from maintaining a family life in Israel only on the basis of the ethnicity or national belonging of their spouse”.

‘Baseless’ concerns

The Israeli government has argued that the law is on the grounds of ‘security’. But human rights groups like B’Tselem describe this as “baseless”. The “real reason” is that “Israel is seeking to prevent the further increase of the Arab population in Israel in order to preserve the Jewish character of the state”. 

This motivation has never been completely hidden; in 2005, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon confessed that “there is no need to hide behind security arguments. There is a need for the existence of a Jewish state”. But with this ruling, the racist rationale for the legislation has been made more explicit.

In the majority opinion, Justice Asher Grunis wrote that “human rights are not a prescription for national suicide”, a term often invoked by those worrying about what realising Palestinian rights would mean for Israel’s Jewish majority. This same phrase was invoked by the Interior Minister Eli Yishai, while coalition chair and Likud MK Ze’ev Elkin applauded the High Court judges for understanding, as he put it, that “human rights cannot jeopardize the State”.

A particularly instructive reaction came from Kadima MK Otniel Schneller, who said that the decision “articulates the rationale of separation between the (two) peoples and the need to maintain a Jewish majority and the (Jewish) character of the state”.

MK Schneller used the logic of racial separation to advocate for “two states for two peoples”, showing just how much overlap on fundamentals exists between ‘centrists’, and the likes of extreme rightist group Im Tirtzu, who said the ruling will “prevent hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from flooding Israel”.

Demographic ‘threats’

This ruling also comes just two days after the Knesset passed an amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law which targets asylum seekers with “draconian arrest measures”. Under the new law, adopted by a strong majority of MKs, refugees can be held in detention for three years without trial (including children), with those coming from “enemy states” (like Sudan), eligible for indefinite detention. Groups like Amnesty International have slammed the new law as “an affront to international law”, and human rights activists in Israel have vehemently opposed the bill as it developed.

The background to this law is, once again, racist rhetoric about the ‘demographic threat’ to the Jewish state. In August 2010, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that the issue of deporting migrant children was influenced by “Zionist considerations”. Last December, Israel’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai promised to ensure that “the last of the infiltrators return to their countries”, calling their presence “an existential threat”. Defending “the Jewish majority” was a sentiment echoed by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, who described “blocking off the southern border to infiltrators” as “a Zionist act”.

A recent piece in The Jewish Daily Forward on the relationship between European right-wing extremists and “sections of the Israeli right” suggested that this “mutual cooperation between the Israeli and European fringes can perhaps best be attributed to a shared obsession with blood, soil and demography”.

But in Israel, demography is by no means a ‘fringe’ concern, as this week’s news shows. Indeed, it has shaped government policy on immigration, land, and planning since 1948, for the brutal fact that the ‘Jewish majority’ was only realised in the first place by the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and their exclusion by both violent and ‘legal’ means. Still lauded as a progressive beacon by some, Israel continues to lay increasingly bare the hollow meaning of its ‘democracy’.

Ben White is a freelance writer, specialising in Palestine and Israel.

Follow Ben on Twitter @benabyad

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.