Anson Laytner
Anson Laytner

Israel’s Family Reunification Law

I’m confused.

The new Israeli government was seeking to extend the 2003 Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law, the so-called “Family Reunification Law”, which typically involves an Israeli citizen requesting citizenship for his or her non-Israeli spouse.   However, although part of the law’s official purpose was to prevent the entry of potential security threats into Israel, since most unification applications are submitted by Palestinian Israelis on behalf of a Palestinian spouse living in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, the net effect of this law has been to make it more difficult for Palestinians to gain Israeli citizenship or residency through marriage.

Here’s why I’m confused: The law, first introduced by a Likud government headed by Ariel Sharon, has been extended multiple times since 2003, usually with strong backing from the Likud and other right-wing parties. Now, for the first time in too many years, Israel has a new government. This new coalition government also sought to extend this law but it was internally divided and unable to come to an agreement on its content. Even more challenging was the fact that the law’s extension was being opposed — by the Likud.

Since the government lacked the votes necessary for its passage and, not wanting to risk failure, the bill to extend the law was pulled. Had the government submitted the bill to the Knesset, it would have been dependent on right-wing opposition parties to help pass the bill but, while those parties back the law in principle, they refused to support it in the hopes of embarrassing the new government, perhaps leading to its downfall.

In response, the government accused opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies of “playing with the country’s security” by “putting political considerations before the security interest of the citizens of the State of Israel.”

So, on the face of it, the “change” government was in favor of keeping a law that disproportionately and negatively affects the lives of its Palestinian Israeli citizens while, the Likud, which had introduced and supported the law for decades, now stood in opposition to the law’s extension, thus putting them, as it were, in support of family reunification by Palestinians inside Israel.

Now that’s confusing!

But that’s not the major reason for my confusion.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence states:

The State of Israel…will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations…

We appeal — in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months — to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.

That’s why I’m confused.

If the “change” government (or the old government, for that matter) behaved in a way consistent with Israel’s foundational document, then this law would never have been promulgated in the first place and never renewed any time thereafter. In practice, the law violates the rights of Palestinian Israeli citizens and deprives their spouses of the ability to access to health insurance, social security, drivers licenses, education, and employment. All citizens should be treated equally. There were and there are other ways of dealing with any security concerns that Palestinian family reunification might entail.

About the Author
Rabbi Anson Laytner of Seattle is currently president of the Sino-Judaic Institute and longtime editor of its journal Points East. He is the co-editor, with Jordan Paper, of "The Chinese Jews of Kaifeng." Before retiring, he taught at Seattle University and worked with the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. His most recent book is "The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God."
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