Tuesday, August 14, 2007
On the Israeli Law of Return -- An Examination of the Israeli Neocon Arguments in its Favor -- Part I
In 1950 the Israeli Knesset passed the Law of Return, which begins, “Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh.” As Joppke and Roshenhek (2001) point out, the Law of Return is not an immigration law that confers upon Jews the right to be citizens of Israel; rather it recognizes their natural right to be citizens. It is part and parcel of the view of Israel as a state of the Jewish people who are its actual and potential citizens; it is a constitutive law, and not merely a law that favors one ethnic group over the other in immigration policy. The law applies not only to Jews who have suffered from discrimination or are refugees, but also to those who wish to settler in Israel for ideological, i.e., Jewish reasons. It follows from the two central doctrines of political Zionism: that the natural place for Jews is the State of Israel, and that a viable Jewish state can be attained through massive immigration. This second doctrine points to one of the main goals of the Law of Return – to ensure a solid Jewish majority, because of the recognition that Palestine is inhabited and claimed by another people, the Palestinians. This last point is important. The Law of Return is not only directed towards the Jewish people; it is directed against the Palestinian people, including those that are citizens of Israel. The Law of Return was used to legitimize the massive immigration of Jews from Muslim countries during the early years of the state, and the waves of Russian immigration (of Jews and, sometimes, non-Jews, for reasons that I will go into elsewhere) in later years, in order to give Israeli Jews and their supporters the demographic edge. While Israel does recognize non-Jews as citizens, and in principle, the realms in which non-Jewish citizens are discriminated against by law are limited (though significant), the Law of Return has been the positive expression of the desire to deprive a homeland nationality of its rightful patrimony. One cannot discuss the Law of Return independently of the law against the return of the Palestinians to their homeland – not their ancestral homeland, but their actual homeland; or independently of the glaring failure to provide for the naturalization of non-Jews. In recent years, under increasing attack from liberals, the Israeli Law of Return has been defended by a succession of Israeli neocons. Thus, Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein, in “Democratic Norms, Diasporas, and Israel’s Law of Return" have marshalled a variety of considerations, if not always to defend the law of return from its critics, then at least to remove the stigma of Israel being uniquely discriminatory. Similar arguments have been offered in a recent article for the Chronicle of Higher Education by Gadi Taub, Liberalism, Democracy, and the Jewish State In the days to come, I will examine two familiar arguments in favor of the Law of Return that are frequently posed by its defenders. The first is the “lots-of-countries-discriminate on-the-basis-of-ethnicity” argument, which is taken as a sign that discriminating in favor of a particular ethnic group is not so bad and maybe even justifiable. The second is the “lots-of-countries-discriminate-but-only-Israel-is-criticized” argument, which allows that there may be something illiberal with the Law of Return, but that since the phenomenon of preferring one ethnic group over other vis-à-vis immigration, is widespread, it is unfair to criticize Israel. My examination of these arguments will show that they are both without merit. A comparison of the way Israel discriminates in its Law of Return, with the way that other countries who discriminate do so in their immigration policies, will show that the case of Israel is uniquely objectionable. As Joppke and Roshenhek (2001) write: “In its expansiveness and state-defining quality, the Israeli ethnic-priority immigration is unique in the world.” It is thus misleading for Israeli neocons to appeal superficially to other countries such as Germany, Ireland, Finland, Greece, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Croatia as company for Israel. An examination of each of these countries shows that the circumstances and justification of their ethnic-preferential immigrations laws are vastly different from those of the State of Israel – and in some cases their laws are no more justifiable than that of Israel. And in many of their cases, the pressure has been to liberalize their immigration policies. Before I begin, I would just like to stake out my own position. As a liberal who has no problem with a hybrid nationalism that has civil and ethno-cultural elements, I can imagine some moral justification for a state favoring one group or groups (e.g., homeland ethnic groups) over others in immigration policy –– but the justification had better be a good one and the preference must be narrowly drawn, and balanced. The present policy actively discriminates in favor of Jews and against non-Jews. Moreover, as I will argue in a subsequent post, the Law of Return faces a problem that is, I believe, uniquely Jewish – the difficulty of drawing parameters of who is part of the group. To some extent all groups have issues when they draw up membership criteria. But the Jewish group, because of the religio-ethnic component, is uniquely problematic.