Opinion

Israel's Interior Ministry Has Failed at Citizenship

Israelis who sought to acquire legal status for their foreign spouses have found their own citizenship called into question. The state has apparently forgotten its job - to serve the public

Interior Minister Arye Dery at a government meeting on April 9, 2017
Ohad Tzoygenberg

In a democratic country, citizens shouldn’t have to fear being stripped of their citizenship and law-abiding people shouldn’t have to fear routine encounters with government agencies. Yet every year, thousands of Israelis are dragged into unfair battles with the Interior Ministry, which has turned its bureaucracy into a whip with which to abuse citizens and legal residents, and even to create opportunities for the state to reassess their citizenship.

Israelis who sought to acquire legal status in Israel for their foreign (and non-Jewish) spouses have found their own citizenship called into question. Instead of examining such requests on their merits and granting the spouses of Israeli citizens the appropriate legal status, the state has exploited this bureaucratic encounter to threaten these citizens.

In some cases, the state has considered revoking the citizenship of Israelis who immigrated from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s on the grounds that they obtained their citizenship fraudulently. But needless to say, none of them was asked to present any special evidence when they were drafted into the army, since at that time, accepting them as Jewish served the national interest. Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber was right to inform the ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority that it must stop retroactively investigating Israelis’ citizenship.

But it’s not just immigrants from the former Soviet Union who face the threat of having their legal status revoked. The government’s policy of almost automatically revoking the permanent residency of East Jerusalem Palestinians who spend extended periods overseas is another aspect of the same racist bent in the service of the battle for “demographic purity.”

At the same time, a bill sponsored by MK Amir Ohana (Likud), which was approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday and will soon be sent to the Knesset, would give the interior minister the right to strip Palestinians in East Jerusalem or residents of the Golan Heights of their permanent residency if they were involved in terrorism or committed a “breach of trust” against the state. The phrase “breach of trust” is vague, and therefore dangerous. Would voicing support on Facebook for boycotting Israel also put their residency in danger? It is unacceptable to use the revocation of legal status as a punishment, even if the person being punished has joined a terrorist organization and belongs in jail.

The state, and particularly the Interior Ministry, have apparently forgotten that their job is to serve the public. They are not lawyers for the Jewish majority. It’s not their job to protect the country’s “demography,” nor do they have the authority to do so. And they certainly have no right to revoke the citizenship or residency of someone who ostensibly failed a test of either their loyalty or their Jewishness.

Citizenship is a constitutional basic right. It is not a prize for good behavior, nor is it a tool with which to punish people whose religion, way of life or ideology isn’t to the government’s liking.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel