What’s Happening Here Is a Transfer of Citizenship


Menachem Mautner
Menachem Mautner
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Gesher MK Orli Levi-Abekasis at a Labor-Gesher-Meretz faction meeting, January 20, 2020

Menachem Mautner
Menachem Mautner

The idea of population transfer has accompanied Zionism since its outset. Until the state was established, Jews were a minority in the Land of Israel. According to the November 1947 partition plan, 45 percent of the Jewish state’s population were to be Palestinian Arabs. Under these conditions, one possibility that was discussed by Zionist leaders was the transfer of Palestinians.

Yosef Weitz, who from the early 1930s was the director of the Jewish National Fund’s Land and Afforestation Department of the, promoted this idea starting in the late 1930s. He was talking about a voluntary, not a coerced transfer. After the partition resolution, Weitz concluded that the Jewish state “could not exist with a large Arab minority.” As is well known, 700,000 Palestinians lost their homes in the 1948 War of Independence. There is a debate regarding the numbers who were forcibly expelled versus the number who left voluntarily.

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One of the interpretations given to the mystic-Kabbalist thinking of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook is that the Land of Israel is sacred, and that the Jewish people are holy. The land cannot be desecrated by allowing the settlement of non-Jews within it. Some people claim that certain circles on Israel’s right wing are waiting for an opportunity that will allow a population transfer. According to this claim, people supporting the annexation of Judea and Samaria realize that annexed Palestinians will not be given full civic rights, but that it will also not be possible to treat them as second-class citizens, which is why they hope a chance to transfer them will arise.

In the second half of the 1980s. former cabinet minister and general Rehavam Ze’evi proposed a voluntary transfer plan, as well as a forced one, for West Bank Palestinians. He claimed that “if transfer is immoral, all of Zionism is immoral since it grew and became a state through the massive use of transfer.” In the early 21st century, Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman suggested a plan for “territorial swaps,” in which settlements would be annexed to Israel and residents of the so-called “triangle” of Arab towns in Israel would be transferred to the Palestinian state. Similar thinking can be found in President Trump’s self-styled “deal of the century.”

Ever since the declaration of independence, Israel’s stance has been that Arab citizens are entitled to equal rights on an individual basis, but not to national rights. This position was reiterated in the nation-state law that the Knesset passed in 2018.

Earlier, when the Knesset ratified the Oslo Accords in September 1993, there were those who said the accords were illegitimate since there were Arab Knesset members among the 61 lawmakers supporting the accords, meaning that there was no Jewish majority ratifying the agreement. This position has resurfaced in recent days, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as lawmakers Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel of Kahol Lavan and Orli Levi-Abekasis (Gesher) denied the legitimacy of establishing a government based on the votes of Arab Knesset members. Decency requires noting that this was the position of all Kahol Lavan spokesmen up until the election.

The right to determine the composition of the government is a basic right of every citizen in a democratic state. One way of exercising this right is by participating in an election. Another way is by citizens voting for their representatives in the legislature. Hanna Arendt talked about citizenship as “having the right to have rights,” the right from which all other rights emanate. Arendt believed that universal human rights were important, but that these rights were meaningless without the ability to exercise these as part of being citizens in a state. The position taken by the prime minister and these Knesset members denies Arab citizens a significant part of their right to have rights. It is equivalent to a transfer of their citizenship.

Physical transfer is a moral abomination, whereas transfer of citizenship is a democratic abomination. As noted, it flies in the face of Israel’s position since its establishment. This position was repeated by supporters of the nation-state law less than two years ago. The connection between the two types of transfer is tight: transfer of citizenship can ultimately pave the way in people’s minds for a physical transfer. Every human being must oppose both kinds of transfer.

Professor Menachem Mautner teaches at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law. He recently published a book (in Hebrew) dealing with the possibility of a physical transfer taking place in Judea and Samaria.

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