Apr 15 2014

The element of citizenship and the current political climate in Israel

By Dr Lauren Banko, Senior Teaching Fellow, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.


Israeli PassportThe peace talks between the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators that started in the summer of 2013 under the auspices of US Secretary of State John Kerry are likely to fizzle out with little fanfare in the beginning of this April. Palestinians express little faith in the process pointing to the continued policies of settlement building, plans for new settlements, recent bombings of the Gaza strip and the latest killing of three Palestinian ‘militants’ in Jenin in the West Bank.   Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu characteristically blamed the Palestinian negotiators for the failure claiming the Palestinian leaders breached trust by making steps to sign international treaties; meanwhile, Kerry blamed continued Israeli settlement-building.  It appears that the prospects of granting concessions to the Arabs in the occupied territories were surely no more than pipe dreams for Kerry and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas.

The debates surrounding the question of citizenship in Israel is complicated further still by recent developments. The first being protests in support of Israel’s 50,000 refugees mostly from Sudan and Eritrea who are granted few civil rights and lack the Israeli citizenship.  At the same time, the current government in Israel has passed a law to end the privileges of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish citizens, namely that of their exemption from military service.  This law should be implemented in 2017, provided that the legislation is not overturned.  Additionally, factions in the government are also close to ratifying a bill to include ‘Israel as a Jewish state’ in the country’s Basic Laws.

These issues come together in an interesting way when one considers the meaning of Israeli nationality versus Israeli citizenship, if these two things can be said to exist as separate statuses.  As David Sheen has recently shown, Israel, a state built upon refugees (often secular refugees) who arrived in the late 1930s and early 1940s, has now began to systematically target for detention and deportation the African asylum seekers in recent years.  In places like Tel Aviv, African asylum seekers are discriminated against on nearly all social and civil fronts in welfare, jobs, housing and even hospital care.  The discrimination and deportation of the non-Jewish refugees is not so different from the decades of work by successive Israeli governments to keep Palestinian Arab refugees from inside Israel’s borders, the latter shown here by Mark LeVine.

The Law of Nationality gives something more akin to ethnic identity to the Jewish population of Israel.  This is not exactly citizenship and thus Arab Israelis are classified differently to Jewish Israelis.  In the absence of a written constitution, civil and political rights of citizenship are codified elsewhere, such as in the above-mentioned Basic Laws.  The differences between nationality and citizenship have been debated in Israel in recent years and indeed since the founding of the state.  In the twentieth century as the nation-state emerged as the dominant political formation, nationality took on a meaning more akin to an ethnic identity whilst citizenship has been developed as a legal identity between an individual and his or her state.  Nationals might not necessarily be citizens, and thus can be deprived of the same rights of citizenship that citizens of the same territory receive.  Clearly then, as others have pointed out, it is difficult to reconcile the principles of equality of citizenship with an ethno-cultural determinate for membership in a democratic nation-state.  Hence the legislation to officially term Israel as a Jewish state fits into this debate on how to reconcile two different types of membership in a territorial and political entity.

The debate is not a new one in the history of former colonies.  ‘The citizen’ as an analytical category in the Middle East is currently a highly politicized topic of discussion, from Egypt to Palestine and from the United Arab Emirates to the Kurdish or Alevi populations of Turkey.  It was also a sort of analytical category at the time that citizenship was developed in the interwar Middle East, as it involved analysis as to which inhabitants of the Arab mandated territories were more ‘white’ or ‘European’ and thus qualified to receive the rights citizenship conferred.

After the First World War, the League of Nations conceived of nationality as flexible and thus transferable: Ottoman nationals (and Jewish immigrants to Palestine) could simply ‘become’ citizens of their new mandated states.  Still, colonial officials did not unanimously agree upon provisions for the transfer and grant of nationality in the Middle East.  Mandate officials became increasingly concerned with ensuring that legislation cultivated a sense of loyalty to the governments of Britain and France, as well as the mandate administrations.  This loyalty became a significant part of the naturalisation process in British-ruled Palestine before 1948.  According to British thinking at the time, colonial subjects could not become ‘British’ unless they were white.  Colonial officials based the national home policy of the Palestine mandate on a racial hierarchy between Jews immigrants and native Arabs, and looked toward the Jewish immigrants as the civilising influence in Palestine.  The markers of character and the nativist ideologies often behind this view “permeated debates over immigration restrictions,” as historian Ann Laura Stoler has shown in numerous colonial situations.  Character did not derive from abstract or universal values, argues Stoler, but rather “at its heart was a conception of being European that emphasised a bearing, a standard of living, a set of cultural competencies and practices to which members of the European community were to subscribe.”[1]  Hence, in early colonial discourse, citizenship was connected to having particular cultural and racial characteristics.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the Dutch and French in the Indies, Indochina and North Africa began to recognize, within colonial laws, that jus soli (right of the soil) and jus sanguinis (right of blood) could not determine national identity in the new colonial nation.  The British in Palestine adopted the same ideology and rendered birthplace and descent to no longer be the only determinants for the acquisition of nationality by inhabitants of colonies.  By the late nineteenth century, new criteria to mark citizens and nationals included middle-class values and morals as well as privileged ‘white’ backgrounds.

It seems that the Israeli nationality legislation is geared much toward the same objective of granting nationality to certain types of individuals—the religious component is not the only requirement taken into consideration yet it is a good excuse to deny asylum seekers and refugees the right to acquire citizenship.  With the colonial and postcolonial precedents in mind then, Israel’s denial of nationality to refugees, be they African or Arab, after significant time spent residing within Israel’s borders, is not a without firm settler-colonial basis.  Law-makers see the cultivation of loyalty and certain ‘civilised’ values through demanding that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state and that its potential nationals be required to possess Jewish ancestry.

To come back to the nearly-extinguished peace talks, the combined elements of discrimination against ‘black’ refugees in Israel, the law to force all Israelis to serve in the military and the proposal to term Israel a Jewish state in the Basic Laws, all pose new stumbling blocks for negotiators which are not part of the long-standing ‘Arab-Israeli’ conflict.  However, these elements are crucial in determining the nature of belonging in Israel, which will affect the Palestinian Arabs within the country’s borders, in the occupied territories and elsewhere in the refugee diaspora.  Indeed, this nature of belonging currently in effect will not be sufficient if it comes to the fore in peace negotiations especially as citizenship and nationality are core issues behind all attempts at progress towards either a one or two-state solution.

[1] Ann Laura Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 27.

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