Israel's Family Unification Ban: Painful Friction Between 'Jewish' and 'Democratic'

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Protesting against the family unification law in Tel Aviv in 2012.
Protesting against the family unification law in Tel Aviv in 2012.Credit: Moti Milrod

The coronavirus may be threatening a return, but the pandemic and its consequences won’t be new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s big test in the near future. Paradoxically, an increased spread of infection and hysteria over it could buy a little quiet for the governing coalition as it grapples with the “family reunification law.”

The law basically prevents West Bank Palestinians who are married to Palestinian citizens of Israel from receiving Israeli citizenship. This ban became temporary law in 2003 during the second intifada and was justified for security reasons. Since then it has been renewed every year. Now it’s about to expire again.

The law isn’t a “challenge” for the coalition, the euphemism for difficulties these days, but a fundamental obstacle with several layers. The simpler layer is political; this is why cunning politicians like New Hope’s Zeev Elkin are trying to forge a solution for this problem. Mansour Abbas, the head of the United Arab List party, hasn’t chalked up enough achievements for him to endorse such a move, which is tantamount to sticking a knife in the Arab community’s heart.

This law reflects blatant discrimination between Arab and Jewish citizens, in addition to the Law of Return, the existence of an institution like the Jewish National Fund, and the more recent nation-state law.

Another layer is security, the pretext for the annual law’s existence. Over the years, officials reported at Knesset debates about a high correlation between Palestinians who entered Israel as part of family reunifications and their children and terror activity. Not for attribution, many officials – including ones not particularly leftist – admit that this is something of a bluff. A country with such a strong security apparatus, activated against Palestinians with no hesitation or caution, can handle this obstacle, insofar as it exists.

The security argument serves both the polite right and the Zionist left, exonerating them from talking about the thing itself – controlling Israel’s demography, which means a different law for each of the two societies.

This issue is somewhat reminiscent of the attitude toward the settlements. The soft right, as in the hawkish parts of the leftist Mapai party of yesteryear, treated the occupation, the settlements in particular, as a security measure or a strategic asset to be used in peace talks. The settler/religious right dismissed these arguments (honestly and decently, one may add).

To the members of this community, even if the army, the U.S. Army and the Almighty created an iron wall preventing even a cap gun from going off near a Jew anywhere around the world, they wouldn’t give up their right to live in the West Bank, because the reasons for settling there aren’t security-related but ideological and religious.

The bill on entry, migration and status in Israel proposed by Simcha Rothman of the far-right Religious Zionism party puts it simply. It says the state can ban people from certain regions – that is, Palestinians – from entering Israel, in the name of the demography economy. The state is also authorized to deny residency and citizenship to any of them who have already been granted this status.

The various restrictions in the legislation – like forbidding those who aren’t citizens and residents to ask for help in court – don’t apply to those who came to Israel under the Law of Return; that is, Jews. The picture is clear. Israel is the state of the Jews. And that’s it, really.

The crisis over the family reunification law isn’t routine coalition wheeling and dealing but another example of painful friction between the “Jewish” and the “democratic.” This time the people who have been sent to protect the democratic part, the left wing of the current government, are supposed to fight for their beliefs.

Just like those that came before it, this law doesn’t weaken the democratic element in Israeli law or slightly disrupt an imaginary balance maintained on the whole. It simply eliminates it.

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