If I may say so, Mr. Yishai...

A clear, cohesive and transparent policy considering the acquisition of Israeli citizenship by non-Jews is the one thing missing from the debate. And that’s a shame.

By AKIN AYAJI
August 20, 2010 17:41
Eli Yishai

Eli Yishai 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Some years ago, French actor Gerard Depardieu made a charming little film called Green Card.

Trying to secure an American immigrant visa – the Green Card of the title – he coerces his boss, the effervescent Andie McDowell, into pretending to be his girlfriend.

As they construct a fictitious portrait of life together for the benefit of the Immigration and Nationality Service, they fall in love with one another (this is Hollywood, after all). Inevitably, the subterfuge fails; as the horrid immigration people come to drag him away, the couple vow to remain true to each other, no matter what.

Sweet.

I’m reminded of the film round about this time every year, as I prepare for my annual interview at the Ministry of the Interior to renew my Israeli visa. Not the subterfuge bit, obviously (well, I hope it is obvious); more to do with the arbitrariness of the procedure that allows me to stay in Israel.

Between us, Mrs. Goy and I are expected to prove that we are a genuine couple: we accumulate bills, photographs, letters from friends and then submit to the obligatory face-to-face interview, together and then separately.

To be fair, the procedure is more or less painless; the employees at the Herzliya branch of the ministry have never been anything other than courteous, polite and scrupulously unprejudiced in processing my application. They’ve also shown some remarkable forbearance, particularly with the face-to-face interviews.



One year, Mrs. Goy couldn’t remember the make of our car; another year, I drew a blank when asked when last we went out on a date. And then, there was the argument we had over who makes whom coffee each morning....

But, on the whole, the process is remarkably straightforward.

And in a couple of years, should I choose, I’ll be eligible to apply for citizenship.

TO BE honest, I have no idea whether my experience is typical or not; but it’s impossible not to contrast it with the experience of the migrant work community, and the government’s recent decision to deport 400 children/ allow 800 children to remain in the country.* Staying with the movies, W.C. Fields – a favorite of mine from the early days of Hollywood – once cautioned against working with children and animals. He understood that no good could come from sharing screen time with either of the two; advice that Interior Minister Eli Yishai would have done well to heed.

Did Yishai honestly think that he could come out looking good in a clash against choirs of children, the offspring of migrant workers, singing – in fluent Hebrew, mind you – about their desire to remain in the only country that they know? I don’t really think Yishai relishes playing the part of the pantomime villain. But that’s the image he’s developed as a consequence of this affair, and thus some people are inclined to ignore him altogether.

THAT’S A pity; there are a couple of things he has said that ought to be considered quite carefully.

Yishai claims that his obduracy is founded on the fact that if he doesn’t stand firm now, the same rigmarole will repeat itself in a few years’ time.

He may be right; but I don’t think it will be because Israel as a state loathes the sight of dark-skinned non- Jewish children. Rather, it will be because Israel is incapable of formulating a clear, cohesive and transparent policy considering the acquisition of citizenship by non-Jews which, incidentally, is the one thing missing from the debate at the moment.

It may very well be – although I personally doubt it – that Israel genuinely aspires toward an absolute ethnic purity. Were that the case, then fine. Codify it in law, shut the doors to everyone and anyone who is unfortunate enough not to be Jewish, and see how things shape up.

Of course, there are some who do favor this approach to migration into God’s own corner of the Middle East. I don’t think they speak for the majority, but if their viewpoint is allowed the upper hand in the debate, the wider world, reasonably, will assume that they do speak for the country.

More likely, a lot of the concerns revolve around issues of national identity and social cohesion: Can the Jewish state remain thus if non-Jews are allowed to settle in Israel? And is it possible to talk about migration in terms of absolute numbers? Personally, I think this is a legitimate discussion to have. If for no other reason, questions of national identity form a part of all sensible conversations about mass migration elsewhere in the world, and there isn’t any particular reason why it should not be the same here in Israel.

But – and it is a big “but” – it is impossible to have a sensible debate about the preservation of a national identity until it is possible to define what this identity is in the first place. And I rather suspect that in this respect, at least, Yishai’s conception of a Jewish state does not necessarily match that of many other citizens – and I’m referring to the Jewish majority.

Quite reasonably, the Arab minority would expect a say in this debate, too.

This is not a problem for me to wrestle with at the moment, although I do find it fascinating; but for Yishai to deflect attention from this conundrum by railing against the children of migrant workers is disingenuous, at best.

So, when Yishai says that he wants to resist now because otherwise it will happen again in a few years, he is absolutely correct. The fact is that it will happen again because – in common with his colleagues in the Knesset – he is unwilling or unable to set out a comprehensive policy concerning the citizenship rights of migrant workers and other non-Jews.

And that’s a shame.

Of course, I may be expecting too much from politicians in general – did I say that I’ve been watching The West Wing lately?

*Delete according to your political and social leanings.

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