Friday, August 01, 2003

In The Name Of Security, Israel Institutionalizes Racism Against Palestinians

Israel has a lot of explaining to do. Why? They are leading us down a dark alley. A crumbling plank. We keep defending Israel, and supporting them, while the rest of the world refuses to do the same. So we ask for some concessions from the Israelis, to grease the wheels of the peace process. Sharon tells Bush to forget it, they're going to build their wall, and then they go and pass a law that disallows any Palestinian who marries an Israeli to become a citizen. Or even to live in Israel. Why? For security reasons, and to preserve the Jewish character of the state. You can almost hear the footsteps of the world continuing to distance themselves from us and the Israelis. Who can blame them?

"I think this bill is simply a disgrace to the state of Israel," said Michael Melchior, a rabbi who heads a liberal religious parliamentary faction. "This will tear families apart. . . ."

Yuri Stern, who heads the parliamentary panel that pushed the measure forward, described it as a contingency made necessary by the brutality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"This is merely a law that for one year restricts the right of Palestinians to settle in our midst," he said. "We are at war. I hope the war will end during this year, but I am not optimistic."

What goes unmentioned is that the Israeli government has been denying this recognition of marriages between Israelis and Palestinians, along with residency and/or citizenship, for years. Long before the latest intifada.

The bill enshrines in law years of foot-dragging by the Interior Ministry which has systematically denied requests from Israeli citizens, most of them from the country's Arab minority, to grant citizenship or residency for their Palestinian spouses.

The most disturbing aspect is that this has solely been focused on Israeli marriages to Palestinians. Solely. Any other race or ethnicity is not treated in the same way. This is unacceptable in the age of enlightened democracy, and creates a true conundrum for the die-hard supporters of Israel. What great principle sustains you, and Israel, that anyone else in the world should care about? It's not freedom. Not democracy. If the state of Israel is only about being Jewish, above and beyond everything else, what example does that set?

"This law takes away constitutionally protected rights explicitly on the basis of ethnic or national affiliation," said Hassan Jabareen, the director-general Adalah, a human rights group active on behalf of Israeli Arabs. "That is not only discriminatory, it is racist."

Israel does not ban any other nationality from joining spouses in the country and seeking citizenship.

No other nationality. Just the Palestinians. Imagine such a policy here in America, initiated by whites in reaction to increasing minority population numbers. Imagine.

"You have an Israeli citizen who is an Arab, and you won't allow him to live with his spouse?" she said. "If this is not racism, then perhaps we need to have a new definition."

In reality, there is no justifiable, enlightened defense for this action. It is clearly racist, and against the values and vision of the free world.

"This bill blatantly discriminates against Israelis of Palestinian origin and their Palestinian spouses," said Hanny Megally of Human Rights Watch. "It's scandalous that the Government has presented this bill, and it's shocking that the Knesset is rushing it through."

Human rights groups plan to petition the Supreme Court to overturn the law, which they contend violates Israel's unofficial constitution protecting ''human dignity and liberty'' and a gamut of international conventions the country has signed.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch sent a joint letter to the Knesset, Israel's parliament, urging members to reject the bill. "The draft law barring family reunification for Palestinian spouses of Israeli citizens is profoundly discriminatory," Amnesty said in a statement. "A law permitting such blatant racial discrimination, on grounds of ethnicity or nationality, would clearly violate international human rights law and treaties which Israel has ratified and pledged to uphold."

B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation, joined in the criticism of the law. Yael Stein, a spokesman, said: "This is a racist law that decides who can live here according to racist criteria."

Some Israelis believe they are sitting on a demographic time bomb, with an Israeli Arab community, already 20 per cent of the population, growing faster than the Jewish population.

I am not an anti-Semite, but an American, and a lover of freedom. This is not just about Israel. It would be wrong for anyone to do this. Any country.

And going beyond the issue of racism, this is also about the disturbing trend of citing security as a reason to suspend our most cherished ideals. Of this trend gaining too much traction in the post-9/11 world, and probably just making things worse.

Perhaps we all should become more comfortable with the idea of living with some risk for awhile, as a condition for freedom and democracy. These calls for security are becoming tiresome, and the overall conditions of such security, as a result of such focus and policy, never seems to get any better.

It's time we implement something that works, and that is reflective of our stated ideals and beliefs. Freedom and respect. Equal rights and dignity. Who would the terrorists appeal to then? A shrinking congregation.