Azmi Bishara
Azmi Bishara in court in 2003. Photo by Baz Ratner
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A bill which would allow the Israeli citizenship of spies or those who aid them to be revoked has passed its first reading and recently won the public support of representatives of the Shin Bet security services. The bill in question is a broadening of a relatively recent amendment to the Citizenship Law of 2008, which allows the state to strip those who commit treason or carry out terrorist acts of citizenship.

Israel, it must be admitted, is not the only state to recently amend its laws and allow for citizenship to be taken away in cases where the state's vital interests have been harmed. While in the U.S. and the great majority of European countries, revocation for these reasons is illegal, in a third of European countries, including Denmark, France and England, it is a legitimate sanction.

And so, if the Israeli move arouses any special concern, it is not because revocation of citizenship is unthinkable. Citizenship applies to a political community, and its significance in a democratic state is the right to take part in a shared, independent government. A citizen who undertakes an act of terror or treason inflicts serious injury on a democratic regime, and it is justifiable to consider revoking citizenship for this reason.

But there are three differences between Israel and European nations, and they turn stripping an Israeli of citizenship into an illegitimate act. First of all, Israeli law allows for the condition of statelessness, while European law allows for revocation of citizenship only from those who hold dual citizenship. Citizenship is not only a political right; it is also a basic human right, and revoking it turns people into refugees. This is why the American Supreme Court ruled that revocation of citizenship is crueler than capital punishment.

Secondly, revocation must be carried out on the basis of the principle that all citizens are equal. A state in which such equality is in doubt may not revoke citizenship. In Israel there is room to suspect that revocation of citizenship would be carried out unequally and applied primarily to Arab citizens.

Notwithstanding the fact that Jews, no less than Arabs, have disturbed the democratic structure in Israel, until this day only Arab citizens have been threatened with revocation of their citizenship, and in two cases the threat was carried out.

The lesson that most European nations have learned, and which Israel must consider, is that revocation of citizenship is a dangerous tool when used in ethnic struggles.

Thirdly, revocation is permissible only as a very heavy punishment and not as an administrative means or for purposes of security. It may be used only for the most severe crimes, when charges are proven through an acceptable criminal court procedure.

A citizen who is proven to have committed a political-terrorist assassination, such as Yigal Amir, may not be compared to someone who is merely suspected of aiding espionage, such as Azmi Bishara.

Finally, the intervention of the Shin Bet security service in a Knesset deliberation on this issue is serious indeed. Revocation of citizenship, nothing more than the revocation of life in a political framework, may be justified only in political terms, in return for a political crime against the shared political life of all of a state's citizens.

The questions of citizenship and revocation must be discussed in the public arena with public interests given proper weight. These are issues too important to leave in the hands of the secret services.


The writer teaches law at Tel Aviv University