Debate over Citizenship Law muddied by inaccuracies

"Acknowledging that Israel’s citizenship law is similar to other democratic states would counter their campaigns."

Palestinian wedding ceremonies 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinian wedding ceremonies 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Israeli High Court of Justice’s decision to uphold the Citizenship and Entry Law elicited a range of inaccurate and hyperbolic statements from a number of politicized non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Under this law, which was first adopted in 2003, Israel is not required to automatically grant citizenship to individuals from the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq who are married to Israelis. But, as previously seen during the debate surrounding the “anti-boycott” law of 2011, which many of the same NGOs denounced as preventing free speech by criminalizing boycott calls (it did not – it created a civil tort), the false NGO narrative of racism and paranoia in Israel is impervious to the facts.
In both cases, the network of European- funded NGOs that claim a human rights mandate was quick to condemn the law and the carefully argued court decision as “racist.” Badil, for example, headlined its press release with the statement, “Israel’s High Court exposes Israeli apartheid regime.” Some media outlets also gave their reports a spin by claiming that the High Court upheld “a law which bans thousands of Palestinians who are married to Israelis from living in Israel.”
While this rhetoric parallels the image of Israel portrayed by political advocacy NGOs, it does not reflect reality. And while reasonable people can disagree about this law, a constructive debate should be based on facts.
The law, first enacted after a series of mass terror attacks perpetrated by Palestinians who had gained entry to Israel for “family unification” purposes, allows for a case-by-case examination of whether a family member who resides in Gaza or the West Bank can live in Israel as a temporary resident or receive citizenship. The law was amended in 2005, restricting applicants to women over 25 and men over 35. Children under the age of 14 could also apply. In 2007, the law was expanded to include restrictions for citizens of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Even with these parameters, over the past two decades an estimated 130,000 Palestinians entered Israel under family unification arrangements.
The tired, all-too-common NGO rallying cry that such restrictions are unique to Israel is false. Israel’s law in this regard is very similar to regulations in other democratic countries, including in Europe. For instance, The Jerusalem Post noted on January 12, among other examples, that “the Netherlands bans family migration of people who do not speak Dutch or who do not accept Dutch culture.”
Most countries do not grant automatic citizenship or even residency rights to non-nationals as a result of marriage to a citizen. A European Council Directive in 2003 on the right to family reunification tackled similar concerns. The EU placed restrictions and refused the right when the spouse or child “constitute[s] a threat to public policy or public security... In this context it has to be noted that the notion of public policy and public security covers also cases in which a third country national belongs to an association which supports terrorism, supports such an association or has extremist aspirations.”
BUT FOR this group of political advocacy NGOs to acknowledge this reality would be to admit that Israel is actually similar to other democratic states, an admission that would counter their campaigns to portray the Jewish nation-state as anti-democratic. The NGO agenda to demonize and politically isolate Israel is based in part on the need to portray proposed legislation – even if it is not heard on the Knesset floor – as racist or stifling debate whenever possible. Acting as if such legislation is unprecedented or somehow is “apartheid” in nature serves the interests of these NGOs.
With regard to the Citizenship Law, the majority of the High Court carefully sought to balance the ideals of an open society with the very real security needs of its citizenry. For this reason too, the law can change if the need for security declines. For a country in a state of war, striking this balance is an even greater challenge than those presented to the courts of the US or Europe. The High Court of Israel – known for its activism, liberalism and willingness to make decisions that anger the security establishment – rendered its decision fully aware of this reality.
The decision, therefore, cannot be dismissed as a product of political influence, as the NGOs are wont to do. Ironically, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), which routinely argues for the independence of the judiciary and accuses right-wing politicians of delegitimizing the Court, is now itself delegitimizing the judiciary with claims that “[i]t is a dark day for the protection of human rights and for the Israeli High Court of Justice” and that the court acted in a “disgraceful” manner.
But, in addition to these overt arguments, the NGO narrative regarding the Citizenship Law includes undertones of discomfort with the existence of Israel as a Jewish state, as embodied in a Law of Return that ensures automatic citizenship for any Jew that chooses to live in Israel. Although other democratic countries, such as Ireland, have similar laws, within the Israeli context this is presented by NGOs as discriminatory.
Israel’s democratic process resulted in a Citizenship Law that balances family unity and security. A debate about these complex matters should certainly occur – based on facts, the actual law and the realities of the challenges Israel faces.

The writer is communications director of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institution dedicated to promoting universal human rights and to encouraging civil discussion on the reports and activities of nongovernmental organizations, particularly in the Middle East.