In his recent Knesset speech, Yair Lapid, Israel’s newly appointed foreign minister, did not mince words. This is how he justified the need to extend the law that prohibits the reunification of Israeli Palestinians with their spouses from the West Bank and Gaza: “We should not try to obscure the essence of this law. It is one of the tools for preserving the Jewish majority in the State of Israel”. Ultimately, the Knesset failed to extend the law but only due to the opposition’s obstructionist tactics. There is little doubt that, ideologically, the vast majorities of both the legislators and the public support this law.
Lapid’s words require a bit of unpacking. Even if you cringe at Israel’s attempts to retain its Jewish majority (as you should), isn’t it also understandable? There is a value in Israel’s remaining a Jewish majority country, and if this can be achieved in a humane, enlightened way, without trampling people’s rights, maybe we should give ourselves a break.
But there are two major problems with this law that make it so hard to swallow. First, it does trample a basic human right to family reunification, a right that even the country I was born in – USSR – at least tried to honor (most of the 70s’ aliya from the Soviet Union, and a large part of the Big Aliya escaped from behind the Iron Curtain on family reunification grounds). Second, this law inflicts great suffering on thousands of Israeli citizens unable to reunite with their loved ones. Finally, this law discriminates between citizens on an ethnic basis. This is a horrible law.
Second, while being racist, cruel, and harmful, this law is not even designed to defend the cherished Jewish majority. It only affects several thousand people – a drop in the bucket of Israel’s 9-million-strong population. As bad as it sounds, this is an ethnic purity law. Its true goal is to keep as many Arabs from coming to Israel as possible, at any cost.
This is, by far, not the only indication that racial purity has all but become Israel’s official ideology. In 2018, Benjamin Netaniyahu reached a deal with the UN on African asylum seekers in Israel. This was a surprisingly sensible deal that envisioned half of the asylum seekers relocated to other countries, and the other half (roughly 15 thousand people) absorbed by Israel. What followed was a rare display of disloyalty to Bibi, with even his staunchest supporters ruthlessly attacking him for attempting to do the unthinkable: to increase Israel’s non-Jewish population by a tiny fraction! Needless to say, the deal was quickly called off.
The case of the Black Hebrew Israelites also comes to mind. This small community that does not threaten the Jewish majority in any way has been the target of numerous deportations and deportation attempts, the last one happening just recently. What should have been a trifle and quickly resolved humanitarian issue, turned into pointless decades-long harassment.
Far from becoming obsolete, the ethnocentric ideology is instead being enshrined in Israeli legal system. The infamous Nation-State Law, recently upheld by the Supreme Court, in fact, states that Israel belongs not to all, but to some of its citizens.
It is not surprising then that almost half of Israeli Jews would like to see Israeli Arabs deported, and a whopping 80% think that Jews should enjoy preferential treatment in Israel. Nor is it surprising that “the state of all its citizens” (“medinat kol ezraheya”), instead of being a self-evident rallying cry for all decent Israelis, has become anathema.
Even if Lapid does not personally believe in what he said, even if he was just pandering to the electorate, this only shows how deep the problem goes. This is the will of the people. This is what they demand: racial purity.
One of Israel’s existential questions is whether the state’s Jewish and democratic facets can truly coexist. I do not know the answer, but I do know that democracy cannot be reconciled with the demand for racial purity. A state cannot proclaim its allegiance to just one of the ethnic groups that inhabit it, without discriminating against other groups.
In the period leading to the First World war, the Turkish empire was famously called “the sick man of Europe”. In some sense, Israel is the sick man of Europe and of the West now. Despite having developed robust democratic institutes, under the surface, Israel is addicted to racial purity. The new government – or at least its liberal part to which Lapid supposedly belongs – should be concerned with healing this addiction instead of pandering to it.