The Jewish state: What’s love got to do with it?

In Israel it appears that madness and reason are intertwined in the most intimate elements of life.

An African migrant holds an Israeli flag after being released from the Holot detention center in the Negev (photo credit: REUTERS)
An African migrant holds an Israeli flag after being released from the Holot detention center in the Negev
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There are very few things in life as remote from each other as love and bureaucracy. The drive for romantic love is what – as Schopenhauer maintains – keeps us from being so bored as to commit suicide.
State bureaucracy, on the other hand, is boring by design.
From Grimm Brothers fairy tales to their latest computer-animated adaptation by Disney movies, the modern concept of love transcends all practical circumstances. Scott Fitzgerald captured its irrational and magical nature, saying “there are all kinds of love in this world, but never the same love twice.” Indeed, in good days love is magic, on bad ones it may be more like black magic, but when it loses its charm altogether – it ceases to be love.
In Romeo and Juliet love has the power to break and reshape socio-economic hierarchies. When love is absent – as in Anna Karenina – it is enough to break down institutional shackles like marriage.
State bureaucracy was also born in the modern nation era. Max Weber described it as hierarchically organized, neutral, expertise-based and rational, and at the service of the expansive needs of capitalism. It constitutes an “iron cage” of rules and laws, which cannot be farther away from the individual freedoms epitomized in the romantic notion of love.
The clash of love and bureaucracy is demonstrated in a new report by the Hotline for Migrants and Refugees, Physicians for Human Rights and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
The report focuses on the most abject parts of Israeli society: labor migrants, asylum seekers, Palestinians and victims of torture. Generally treated as “foreigners,” successive governments have made great efforts to avoid settling their status or that of their children, keeping them “permanently temporary residents,” as described by Professor Raijman and Dr. Kemp of Haifa and Tel Aviv universities.
Since 2008, the Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration Authority (PIBA) has determined the proceedings related to “foreigners”: from their legal status, through their rights to health, education, welfare, housing and workplace rights, to policing and enforcement.
Complementary services provided by NGOs to those populations on the margins of society allow the state not to articulate clear and binding policies or allocate resources to their everyday needs.
In their report, human rights NGOs contest that situation. The report presents abusive practices of PIBA, focusing on the state interruption of the right to a romantic relationship and to forming a family life. While Israelis laws and regulations, as well as court rulings, generally uphold the right to choose a partner and set up a family, the devil lies in the interpretation of those general policies and in the practices of their implementation.
FOR EXAMPLE, in order to examine the “sincerity of the relationship” of an Israeli citizen or resident to a “foreigner,” couples are expected to live up to a series of stringent criteria.
Any deviation from the following may result in disqualifying a relationship as “insincere”: couples are to know all family members of one another; to sign all rental agreements or direct debit arrangements together and without any additional person involved, regardless of particular situations of scarce financial resources; to go out always as a couple, and not to spend nights apart. The latter condition makes it almost impossible for relationships of Israeli citizens and domestic care workers (the largest sector of labor migrants in Israel) to be recognized by the state. In one particularly absurd case, a female labor migrant stated that she had entered a relationship because she felt lonely.
That was enough for PIBA to conclude her relationship wasn’t sincere.
Restrictive regulations regarding labor migrants prevent them from developing romantic ties and a family life, unless they do so in secret. Should PIBA’s bureaucrats find out about such a relationship, the couple and its children could face the threat of deportation along with heavy debts.
Regarding asylum seekers, the Supreme Court has described PIBA’s practices as being shrouded under “normative fog.” A recent version of the Anti-Infiltration Law passed by the government – after the Supreme Court repeatedly annulled previous versions – includes provisions that place parents in detention centers for extended periods. “Love is free, free is love” sings John Lennon, but PIBA’s tune sounds more like a rigid military march.
Sometimes even PIBA recognizes it needs to make exceptions. These may include when a child is born in a relationship that wasn’t yet recognized, or when a foreign woman has been abused by her Israeli partner prior to obtaining an independent legal status, or when a foreigner’s Israeli partner dies in the midst of the long-term process of being recognized. Such cases are brought to an “Inter-Ministerial Committee for Humanitarian Affairs.” This committee operates arbitrarily and without any standardized criteria, light years away from Weber’s “ideal type” of bureaucracy.
While Israeli politicians prefer not to articulate a policy on such sensitive matters, their general statements often reveal some of the guiding logic, which the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of PIBA often conceals. About asylum seekers, Prime Minister – and since last week also Interior Minister – Benjamin Netanyahu claimed they are an “existential threat” to the country. Former Interior Committee chairwoman Miri Regev went so far as to call them a “cancer in our body,” and former interior minister Eli Yishai pledged to “make their life miserable.” With regard to Palestinians, there is a broad consensus across all Zionist parties that they constitute a demographic threat to the Jewish state.
To be clear, in a world that is divided into nation-states and considering its long history of persecution, the Jewish people have a legitimate right to live in a “Jewish state.” This right to self-determination is to be realized, of course, in the State of Israel. A separate question altogether relates to the means by which the “Jewishness” of the state can be democratically realized.
In my view, a collective right can be actualized through collective measures.
These may include promoting state-sponsored Jewish education and culture, protection of the status of the Hebrew language, ensuring access to holy sites, advancing historical and theological research of Jewish heritage, celebrating Jewish holidays as state holidays, encouraging the aliya of Diaspora Jews and so on.
On the individual level, however, state authorities should be completely tolerant regarding the citizens’ and residents’ choices of the heart.
Instead, the state deploys interventionist measures that make the actions of the Capulet family toward Romeo and Juliet’s relationship appear quite lenient. This often defies repeated court rulings, but worse – it defies the basic traits and rights we learn to be a part of Western culture.
Nietzsche argued “there is always some madness in love, but there is also always some reason in madness,” but in Israel it appears that madness and reason are intertwined in the most intimate elements of life. The government needs to figure out more subtle ways to maintain a Jewish state than sending PIBA’s bureaucrats into people’s bedrooms.
The author is a PhD candidate at the Goethe University in Frankfurt.