Last week's news provided one bright spot amid the general gloom: The Rubinstein Committee's submission of proposals for a much-needed reform of Israel's immigration policy - or, more accurately, its non-policy. For the first time, the committee has proposed sensible restrictions on immigration through marriage to replace the former "policy" of officially welcoming anyone not explicitly deemed a terrorist by the security services, but in practice discouraging applicants by putting them through bureaucratic hell.
One of the committee's most important recommendations - all of which relate exclusively to people not entitled to immigrate under the Law of Return - is to authorize the government to ban immigration completely from any place from which combat is actively being waged against Israel.
Virtually no other country allows enemy nationals to immigrate freely during times of active warfare. Yet Israel did precisely that during the first three years of the intifada, accepting thousands of Palestinians who applied for family unification with Israelis, because existing law provided no means of refusing them. Only in 2003, after some of these Palestinian immigrants had exploited their new status to commit deadly terror attacks, did the government pass temporary legislation barring all Palestinian immigrants below a certain age, which was meant to give it time to enact a permanent reform of the immigration laws.
The proposal would also allow the government to set annual quotas for immigration from enemy states or territories not engaged in active warfare against Israel. That, too, is sensible. Currently, its practical implications are minimal, since most qualifying states, such as Syria and Iran, provide few immigrants in any case. But various contingencies could make it significant. For instance, the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, which refuses to recognize Israel, would presumably fall into this category even if Palestinian terror were to drop sharply.
Additionally, the committee recommends various restrictions on immigration through marriage even from non-enemy states. It proposes that such immigrants be at least 23 years old (to reduce fictitious marriages for immigration purposes) and swear loyalty to Israel immediately upon entering the country. Currently, such immigrants swear loyalty only upon receiving citizenship, which is usually years later. It also proposes certain financial requirements - for instance, that the Israeli spouse earn at least 120 percent of the minimum wage - to ensure that the immigrant does not become a welfare burden.
FINALLY, IT recommends an annual quota for immigrants through marriage - either in addition to or instead of the above proposals. This is clearly crucial. Israel, as the homeland of the Jewish people, has never restricted Jewish immigration, and never should. But non-Jewish immigration is not part of Israel's raison d'etre, so there is no reason not to follow the practices of other countries - most of which do impose immigration quotas, in order to avoid straining their absorption capacity.
The other proposed restrictions would also bring Israel into line with the European trend. Denmark, for instance, enacted legislation in 2002 under which immigrants through marriage must be at least 24 years old and pass a Danish language and citizenship test, the Danish spouse must meet various income and housing requirements, and both partners must demonstrate that their attachment to Denmark outweighs their attachment to any other country.
The French government unveiled draft legislation two weeks ago under which a new immigrant would have to pledge to learn French, respect the country's values and actively seek work, and would not be allowed to bring over relatives unless he could support them without welfare assistance.
THE COMMITTEE also addresses the issue of foreign workers, and correctly recommends eliminating one of the most disgraceful blots on Israel's legal code: the law that binds foreign workers to a particular employer. This law has created a form of modern-day slavery, in which workers often endure severe abuse - from virtual imprisonment to being cheated of their wages - because leaving would make them "illegal" and therefore subject to deportation. The committee therefore proposes that foreign workers be allowed to switch jobs freely for the duration of their permit.
Not all its proposals are equally sensible. For instance, Israel currently grants residency rights to foreign workers with children who were born here and are aged 10 or older, since such children know no other home and would find it difficult to relocate; the committee proposes lowering this age to seven. But since children in the early elementary grades usually adapt to new languages and cultures relatively easily, it is hard to accept the committee's claim that forcing them to relocate is equally "cruel."
Moreover, the government might do well to consider some immigration restrictions not included in the committee's recommendations. A Danish-style "attachment" requirement, for instance, would be particularly appropriate for Israel's situation, since one of Israel's most serious immigration problems is an influx of Palestinian immigrants whose loyalties have remained Palestinian rather than Israeli.
Overall, however, the committee's proposals introduce a welcome breath of sanity into Israel's immigration chaos.
Unfortunately, these recommendations will almost certainly be decried as "human rights violations" by leftist legislators, human rights organizations and, very possibly, the Supreme Court. Indeed, Supreme Court President Aharon Barak made his likely position clear just last week in a hearing on the temporary law restricting Palestinian immigration: He suggested that instead of barring Palestinian immigrants, Israel allow them all in, but issue them differently colored identity cards.
But the committee's distinguished composition provides the government with a trump card: It consists almost entirely of well-known leftist academics, headed by law professor and former Meretz MK Amnon Rubinstein. Rubinstein, as both a lifelong crusader for human rights and one of Israel's leading constitutional scholars, is surely no less competent than Barak to determine whether such restrictions comply with the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. If even his prestige is insufficient to stiffen legislators' spines, nothing ever will be.
The Rubinstein Committee's proposals thus provide a golden opportunity for Israel to enact crucial reforms of its immigration policy. Whatever government is elected on March 28 must seize this opportunity and make legislating such reforms a top priority.