(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It took 16 years before the United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism was repealed. If reactions by human rights groups to the proposed government-sponsored amendment to the immigration law passes a second and third reading in the Knesset, the ugly accusations of racism will resurface not only from outside the country but from within. The indicators are already signaling a red alert.
Speakers at a meeting in Tel Aviv on Sunday night were unanimous in declaring the amendment racist and directed primarily at non-Jews of Russian, Ethiopian and Palestinian background, so as to safeguard Israel's demographic balance and ensure that there will always be a Jewish majority.
The amendment was the final law to be voted on last July before the Knesset's summer recess, and only 18 MKs showed up to vote for legislation that will affect the lives of tens of thousands of people, according to Kadima MK Marina Solodkin, who works primarily on behalf of immigrants from the FSU, whose many seemingly insurmountable problems will now be magnified.
An example was provided by Zoya Kalkov, 57, an immigrant from Siberia who is not Jewish. Her first husband was not Jewish, either, though her second husband with whom she has been living for 20 years is Jewish. Kalkov has two children from her first marriage. The whole family came to Israel 13 years ago.
The daughter was involved in a motor accident soon after arrival and with all the running around for treatment, the need to establish her status in Israel was somehow overlooked. Thus the daughter, who recovered from her ordeal, became a qualified nurse, married a non-Jew and has a son who is now in second grade, is an illegal immigrant. Kalkov's grandson, though born and educated in Israel, is stateless. Her son is legal.
If the proposed amendment becomes law, Kalkov's daughter and grandson would have to leave the country for one to five years and apply from abroad for permission to enter Israel as permanent residents or citizens. It is unlikely that would be granted because they have no Jewish bloodlines. The best they could hope for is permanent residence, and there is no guarantee of that, either.
Kalkov is emotionally torn. She is very attached to her daughter and grandson, but also to her son and of course to her husband, Sergei Stolbov. However neither her son nor her husband is willing to leave Israel. Kalkov and her daughter don't want to leave, either. "We've invested 13 years in making new lives for ourselves in this country. We like it here. We want to contribute," said Kalkov. "Someone is forcing me to decide with which of my children I want to live, and I don't like that at all. I want the right to work, the right to receive national insurance and the right to be part of Israeli society."
A nicely dressed young man who introduced himself as Oleg has a non-Jewish mother, whom he left behind in the FSU when he came to Israel to be with his father Vitaly and his father's new family. Oleg is now 18, but without status. He was an outstanding student at school, speaks good Hebrew with barely a trace of an accent, would love to serve in the IDF and then possibly study medicine. He can't do any of those things, nor can he work because he's not legal.
His siblings, one of whom is in the army and came in her uniform, are all legal. Oleg is frustrated. His father, who works in marketing, is even more so. He's been running between the Interior Ministry and the Association for the Rights of Mixed Families. The latter gives him advice. The former tells him nothing. It doesn't even offer an outright refusal. His and thousands of other families are living in limbo because they cannot get any information out of the ministry.
This was verified by human rights activists dedicated to helping these people, whose family unity and the place they call home are threatened. Vitaly said that if he had no other option, he would have to hire a lawyer to take up Oleg's case. But given the tough attitude of the Interior Ministry, as outlined by practically every speaker, he's going to be out of pocket with no results.
The situation regarding Palestinians is equally difficult. Ibtisam Mara'ana, who directed the documentary film Three Times Divorced, said that after the film was screened and publicized, the Interior Ministry suddenly relented in the case of Khitam, a Gaza-born, university-educated Palestinian woman married to Israeli Arab.
At the time of their arranged marriage, Palestinian spouses of Israelis were still permitted to live in Israel. Khitam came to live in Israel and gave birth to six children. Her husband was constantly abusive, and if she dared protest or ask for a divorce, he always warned her that she would be left with nothing and would be deported. Fearing that she would lose her children, Khitam continued to put up with the abuse. But one day her husband went to the Sha'aria Muslim Court without informing her of his intentions, and divorced her. She was not present to defend herself and lost custody of her children. She became an illegal alien and was left with nothing.
Under a law passed in 2002, she cannot gain Israeli citizenship because she is a Palestinian. She paid a clandestine visit to her children's school where she was tearfully reunited with them, but suffered further abuse from her former husband. Though she was bruised and bleeding, no battered woman's group was willing to take her in because she wasn't a citizen of the state. It was only through the intervention of Aida Touma Sliman, Executive Director of Women Against Violence, and MK Zehava Gal-on that she was finally admitted to a shelter where she was able to stay for eight months.
In the interim, Mara'ana made the documentary film about her, which was written up in the Hebrew media along with a report about the heartlessness of the Interior Ministry, which took the initiative and offered her a year's residency while she tried to regain her children. She is now working and supporting herself.
All the people affected by the amendment, said Mara'ana, are in the same boat, and can succeed in blocking the amendment only if they pool their resources and work together.
Solodkin also subscribed to the unity is strength philosophy, adding that while the amendment to the law purports to be one that will clarify people's status, "it is in fact a deportation law that pretends to be something else."
Attorney Oded Feler of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel pointed to the absurdity of the Right of Entry Law in general. "The State of Israel asks anyone who is not legally in the country to leave and to apply through proper channels," he said. "Yet the fact of the matter is that according to law, anyone who is illegally in Israel must be deported."
The amendment, he added, contravened rulings that were handed down by the courts in previous years, but the Interior Ministry did not want to give status to those people whom the court had ordered them to recognize, and so they were circumventing the court and going to the Knesset. "The Interior Ministry wants to enshrine its policy in law," he explained.
Other than forcing Palestinians and non-Jewish Russian and Ethiopian immigrants out of the country, said Feler, the amendment would also affect several hundred non-citizens who were stateless Beduin.