Saturday, 17 May 2014

Israel's Citizenship Laws: It's Time for a Change

Canada and Israel are very different countries, but they have a few things in common.  One of them is the fact that they are both nation-states founded and built by immigrants.  The Dominion of Canada was founded by the British Empire, whereas Israel was founded by Jews who immigrated to Palestine, which coincidentally was also controlled by the British Empire.  But of course, I would not make an exact comparison between the Europeans who colonized what became Canada and the Jews who immigrated to Palestine, because it's not like Jews were going to a place they had never been.  They were actually returning to the land that has always been their ancestral homeland: the Land of Israel, unlike the first European settlers in North America, who did not have any historical roots to the land that they had colonized.  The words "return" and "returning" in Zionist ideology are synonymous with Jews coming to Israel.  Zionism uses this terminology in order to emphasize the fact that Jewish immigration to Israel is not like regular immigration where someone goes to live in a country where neither he nor any member of his family, past or present, has ever been before.  In fact, one of Israel's most important laws is called the Law of Return.  This law gives any Jew, wherever he or she may reside, the right to live in Israel.  It is a testament to the fact that the State of Israel was created to restore the Jewish people's independence as a nation-state and to give Jews from around the world a safe place of refuge - the kind of refuge that was not available to the Jews during the Holocaust.  As an adamant supporter of Israel, I do believe that every Jewish person, wherever he or she may live, has the right to return to the land of their forefathers, so I have no problem with the Law of Return.  I do, however, have a problem with the entitlement that a person immigrating to Israel under the Law of Return has - that entitlement being Israeli citizenship.

Contrary to popular belief, the Law of Return does not accord Jews with immediate Israeli citizenship.  It is rather Israel's Nationality Law that gives Jews the automatic right to citizenship upon arrival in the country.  In other words, a Jewish person who just got off the plane at Ben Gurion International Airport, Israel's main air travel hub near Tel Aviv, can not only claim the right to stay in the country, but also the right to Israeli citizenship and all the rights it entails, including the right to vote in Israel's elections.  Neither I, nor any self-respecting Zionist would refuse entry to any Jewish person into Israel, unless of course he or she was a danger to the country (thankfully, the Nationality Law does preclude granting status to such people).  But I do resent the fact that any Jewish person who just got off a plane from another country could theoretically go and vote in an Israeli election the next day and therefore having a say in how Israel is governed.  I believe that although residing in Israel may be a Jewish birthright, Israeli citizenship is not.  In a modern, democratic country, citizenship is something that has to be earned.  The only generally agreed-upon exception to this rule is when the citizen of any given country has children, those children are automatically entitled to the citizenship(s) of their parents.  Ironically, Israel's Nationality Law has a different set of rules for people who immigrate to the country but are not Jewish.  Any non-Jewish person who wants to become an Israeli citizen has to be in the country for at least three years.  As I said before, I do believe that Israel, as the nation-state of the Jewish people, should accord Jews the special right to live in the country, but I also believe that everyone in Israel, Jewish or not, should have an equal path to citizenship.

This path to citizenship should be similar the ones taken by immigrants in other modern, democratic countries.  Many countries, like Canada and the U.S. require, for example, that would-be citizens take a citizenship exam that tests a person's knowledge of the country's history, culture, laws and institutions.  In some countries, one is required to pass a separate language exam that measures a person's ability to speak, read, write and comprehend a country's official language(s).  Hence, I believe that before anyone, Jewish or not, can become a citizen of Israel and be entitled to all the rights, privileges and duties that come with being an Israeli citizen, he or she should have to pass an exam that tests his or her knowledge of Israel's history, its laws, its culture, and its institutions.  He or she should also have to pass an exam that determines competency in one of Israel's two official languages.

Israel cannot be a truly modern and democratic state unless it stops giving automatic citizenship to people based solely on their Jewishness, because giving Jews a fast track to citizenship while making everyone else wait three years, as is the case today, goes against the fundamental democratic principle of equality before the law.  Instead, Israel must enact a new nationality law that allows everyone who is permitted entry into the country and who wants to become a citizen an equal opportunity to do so.     

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