A court decision this month that rejected Israelis’ right to a shared nationality has highlighted serious problems caused by Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state, say lawyers and human rights activists.
A group of 21 Israelis had appealed to the Supreme Court to demand the state recognise their wish to be classified as “Israeli nationals”.
Since Israel’s founding in 1948, authorities have refused to recognise such a nationality, instead classifying Israelis according to the ethnic group to which each belongs. The overwhelming majority are registered as either “Jewish” or “Arab” nationals, though there are more than 130 such categories in total.
Critics say the system, while seemingly a technical matter, has far-reaching effects. The citizenship laws, they say, undergird a system of systematic discrimination against the one-fifth of Israel’s population who are non-Jews – most of them belonging to Israel’s Palestinian minority.
Some observers also fear that the court ruling, which effectively upheld Israel’s definition as a Jewish state, will strengthen the aversion of Israel’s right-wing government to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted that Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority recognise Israel as a Jewish state as a condition for reaching a peace agreement.
‘I am an Israeli’
The case was brought to court by the “I am an Israeli” movement, led by Uzi Ornan, a retired linguist from northern Israel. The group, which includes both Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, argued that they should be allowed to change their nationality to “Israeli”.
“This ruling is very dangerous,” said Ornan. “It allows Israel to continue being a very peculiar country indeed, one that refuses to recognise the nationality of its own people. I don’t know of another country that does such a thing. It is entirely anti-democratic.”
The “I am an Israeli” movement objects to Israel’s system of laws that separate citizenship from nationality. While Israelis enjoy a common citizenship, they have separate nationalities based on their ethnic identity. Only the Jewish majority has been awarded national rights, meaning that Palestinian citizens face institutionalised discrimination, said Ornan.
He added: “It tells the country’s Arab citizens that they have no real recognition in their own country – that they will always be treated as foreigners and they will always face discrimination.”
Others view the ruling more positively. Anita Shapira, a professor emeritus of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University, said creating a new category of “Israeli national” would undermine the Jewish essence of the state and alienate Jews from other countries who felt a connection to Israel through a shared religion.
“The attempt to claim that there is a Jewish nationality in the state of Israel that is separate from the Jewish religion is something very revolutionary,” she said.
The “I am an Israeli” movement’s petition was originally heard and rejected in 2007 by a district court in Jerusalem. The group then appealed to the Supreme Court, the second time that Israel’s citizenship laws have been challenged in this venue.
In the first hearing, in 1971, Justice Shimon Agranat ruled that it was “illegitimate” so soon after Israel’s founding for the petitioners to “ask to separate themselves from the Jewish people and to achieve for themselves the status of a distinct Israeli nation”.
Though more than 40 years had passed, that position was largely upheld in the new ruling. Asher Grunis, the head of the Supreme Court, decided: “The existence of an Israeli ethnic nationality has not been proven.” Another judge who heard the case, Hanan Melcer, warned that conceding such a nationality would jeopardise “the Jewish and the democratic nature of the state”. More