A month-old article on OpenDemocracy.net has got me thinking again about differing levels of citizenship and equality in Israel. Laurence Louër highlights the growing minority of Arab Israelis, and how an increase in their numbers means an increase in their political power. This, he says, “is a challenge to the country’s very self-definition.”
Louër cites the legal organisation Adalah (with whom I have worked), who deal with Arab minority rights in Israel. Their campaigns centre around the fact that Arab citizens of Israel, be their Muslim, Christian or Druze, are not afforded equal rights as their Jewish fellow citizens. The charge, at its most ferocious, is one of apartheid. As I have found, this is a contentious word for a contentious issue – a more benign accusation might be something like ‘discrimination on the basis of ethnicity’. Either way, the complaint is that people are not all equal in the eyes of the law or the state.
Some might say that the inequalities are surely the result of social frictions, of the kind that we see in the UK. This might have some truth. Adalah’s complaint, however, is that the state also enshrines an imbalance in law. Inequalities are therefore magnified, ethnic conflict is exacerbated, and the idea of democracy is compromised.
To my mind (and Louër’s too), the most pertinent example of this inequality is the ‘Law of Return’, whereby anyone of Jewish origin may ‘make aliyah’ and take Israeli citizenship. No similar right is granted to those who might be relatives of Arab citizens, or indeed those who did, just a generation ago, actually live within the borders of what is now Israel. The justifications for this (when they are not biblical) cite the necessity of such a law to maintain the Jewish character of the state. I have written before on why I think states should not have an official religion or ethnicity. I also acknowledge that many see Arab Israeli issues as just once facet of the wider Palestinian population (indeed, Louër reminds us that most Arab Israelis define themselves as ‘Palestinian citizens of Israel’). For now, then, one observation:
Isn’t the ‘Law of Return‘ an example of Affirmative Action? The state is, after all, performing a kind of social engineering, seeking to influence its social demography. Certain ethnic groups are awarded preferential treatment, gaining admission by jumping the queue. The justification for this policy is that past injustices have been done to that group, and the preferential treatment redresses the balance. If the ‘Law of Return’ is indeed Affirmative Action, then don’t the arguments against Affirmative Action apply to the ‘Law of Return’ too? How do those who have made aliyah feel about jumping the queue?