By Rabbi Josh Weinberg Friday July 9, 2021 – כ”ט בתמוז תשפ”א
This week saw the swearing in a of a new President Yitzhak “Bougie” Herzog, the first to have been born after the State was founded. Herzog’s presence will hopefully give a sense of stability to the never-ending roller coaster of ups and downs, highs and lows, with last minute twists and turns, and nail-biting endings that is Israeli politics. Such was the case this past Monday night with a tied 59-59 vote on the annual extension of a particularly controversial law known as the “Citizenship Law” or the “Law of family reunification.” The vote to extend the law failed resulting in egg on the faces of the coalition.
The issue at hand requires a much longer debate and discussion than I will give it here. Suffice to understand that the recent Knesset vote should be viewed on two different levels.
This first is the realm of the political and what this means for the recently sworn-in narrow coalition. The second is the essence of the bill itself, which has heretofore been met with broad consensus among the Israeli mainstream, and what the bill therefore says about Israel as a Jewish and democratic State.
PM Bennett and his shaky coalition faced its first serious challenge. Many forewarned of the potential of political paralysis with such an ideologically diverse coalition. Others shared concern that with the first controversial issue to present itself the government would collapse. Well, a controversial issue arose this week and we lived to tell the tale.
According to the government and the law’s authors, the Citizenship Law is strictly about security. It was codified in 2003 during the height of the Second Intifada/War when the Israeli security establishment grew wary that some Palestinian potential terrorists would take advantage of the option to marry a Palestinian-Israeli citizen and thus grant entry into Israel with full citizenship, freedom of movement, and the ability to circumvent checkpoints, barriers, and other security measures.
It passed then, although not without controversy. In the 18 years since, it has annually been approved for a year-long extension. But, as the extension came up for renewal this past week, it became a political wedge issue used by head of the Opposition Benjamin Netanyahu to destabilize the new government led by PM Naftali Bennett. As Noa Landau commented in Haaretz: “Until now, its annual automatic renewal was facilitated by general indifference, despite the legal and moral criticism, but this time the political complexity compelled the Israeli public to recognize and show interest in a long-standing problem that demands to be addressed rather than repressed.”
Fascinatingly, many of those who this week voted against the extension of this law had voted in favor of it in years past. The Opposition’s plot was so transparently partisan that Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s comments only scratch the surface – “Some people put their desire to make life difficult for the reigning coalition over their commitment to the country.” .
But here’s the thing – this bill actually should be opposed on moral grounds. While PM Bennett’s new coalition suffered a political blow, Israeli democracy is better for it. While maintenance of “The Citizenship Law” was perpetuated under the guise of “security,” it is not difficult to infer that rather than trying to prevent terrorists from infiltrating legally – of which there were noticeably few – the real rationale for support of the law was to prevent a demographic imbalance. If Palestinians could leave the West Bank and flee the Palestinian Authority to marry an Israeli citizen, it would not be hard to run background checks on them and determine whether they pose a security risk. It would also not be out of the realm of possibility to imagine Israel’s Palestinian Arab minority exploding exponentially and posing a threat to Israel’s Jewish minority. The challenge is how to maintain a Jewish majority and apply the law equally to all citizens? (Note: A two-state arrangement remains the most plausible guarantee for Israel to continue as a democracy with a Jewish majority). As the book of Leviticus reminds us:
מִשְׁפַּ֤ט אֶחָד֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֔ם כַּגֵּ֥ר כָּאֶזְרָ֖ח יִהְיֶ֑ה כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃ (ויקרא כד:כב)
You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I am Adonai your God. (Leviticus 24:22)
When God says, “I am Adonai your God,” Rashi interprets this to mean that I am the “God of all of you. Just as I attach My Name to you, so do I attach it to the strangers.”
However, as Jews, we take pride in the particularistic thrust of Israel’s Law of Return which allows any Jew to become a naturalized citizen of the Jewish State. Herein lays the dilemma. We also take pride in the fact that any Israeli citizen can marry a partner – Jewish or not – and have that partner become a full citizen. So, as a modern democracy, how can Israel limit a democratic right for some citizens and not others simply because they are not Jewish?
There was a deal proposed to the members of the coalition who oppose the bill. In exchange for extending the law, 1600 Palestinian families were to be reunited and given full rights after having been left in limbo for years. Now that the extension vote ended in a stalemate resulting in the law’s demise, will conditions for the reunification of many more families improve? Yes, they might, which is a good thing. Will the vote destabilize the coalition? No, the coalition, bloodied but unbowed, will live another day.
This is Progressive Zionism at its finest (albeit, achieved in a peculiar and roundabout way) as the Jewish State is still Jewish demographically and morally.
Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov,