Did Israel just fail to be singularly racist ?

The six Knesset members of the Joint List voted against extending the racist law on family reunification (Twitter)

Jonathan Ofir

Mondoweiss /  July 7, 2021

One of Israel’s most singularly racist laws just expired last midnight: the ‘temporary’ ban on Palestinian family reunification, which had previously been extended every year since 2003. But let it be made crystal clear – the law did not expire because Israel stopped being an Apartheid state, and the political reason for the failure to extend the law was not anti-racist.

The government led by Naftali Bennett, Israel’s most right-wing premier ever, failed to pass the extension of the law despite repeated attempts that went into the early hours of Tuesday morning, ending up in a 59-59 tie which almost amounted to a no-confidence vote in the government (61 votes against the law would have indicated as much).

The opposition to the law was also mostly right-wing. Those legislators opposed the law mainly because they sought to apply a more permanent ban on family reunification– and also in order to embarrass Bennett.

The only votes in the 59-vote opposition who were motivated by an actual anti-racist standpoint were the six seats of the Joint List, representing mostly Palestinian citizens. They celebrated the failure of the law to pass.

In Bennett’s own wide-ranging coalition, there were two dissenters, from the Islamic conservative party Ra’am (United Arab List). The party was split on the vote, and although leader Mansour Abbas as well as Walid Taha voted for extending the racist law, Said Alharoumi and Mazen Ganaim abstained.

The final blow to the extension came from the right: Amihai Shikli from Bennett’s own party, Yamina (‘Rightwards’), voted against the law for right-wing considerations, it was not racist enough.

This was an insult to Bennett’s prestige, as it was the first high-profile failure of the new government to prove itself. He put all his political cards on the vote, declaring it to be a vote of confidence. In parallel fashion, the right-wing ultra-orthodox Shas called for the vote to be considered a no-confidence vote in the government.

From the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud bloc mocked Bennett for creating a weak government consisting of “anti-Zionist forces”, such that he can’t even pass his first law without needing the opposition to rescue it. The irony is great, because if the anti-Zionist forces are the Ra’am party, then it was Netanyahu who first courted them last year in his desperate attempt to form a government. If Netanyahu was leading the government, he would probably be relying on those same forces.

But even the relative doves in the government are decidedly Zionist. Just ahead of the final vote, Foreign Minister and alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid tweeted this:

“There’s no need to hide from the purpose of the law. It’s one of the tools meant to secure a Jewish majority in Israel. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and our goal is that it will have a Jewish majority.”

This is a clear echo of Ariel Sharon in 2005, who said of the same “temporary” law:

“There’s no need to hide behind security arguments. There’s a need for the existence of a Jewish state.”

Notably, Sharon is quoted in the Human Rights Watch report of April charging Israel with Apartheid, and for good reason, as a demonstration of the hardly veiled racist motivations behind the law.

The HRW report makes clear the “temporary” law’s racist intentions and effect:

“[The law] bars granting Israeli citizenship or long-term legal status to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who marry Israeli citizens or residents. With few exceptions, this law, renewed every year since and upheld by the Israeli Supreme Court, denies both Jewish and Palestinian citizens and residents of Israel who choose to marry Palestinians the right to live with their partner in Israel. This restriction, based solely on the spouse’s identity as a Palestinian from the West Bank or Gaza, notably does not apply when Israelis marry non-Jewish spouses of most other foreign nationalities. They can receive immediate status and, after several years, apply for citizenship.”

So we need to be very clear about Yair Lapid’s statement on the importance of the law to secure a “Jewish majority.” Lapid supposedly represents the center-left forces in this government. His ascent has been hailed by liberal Zionists in the U.S. as a sign of Israel’s redemption. With liberals like these, who needs Netanyahu?

Further left on the Zionist spectrum, Meretz voted for the extension, unanimously. This is surely a mark of shame for any party that purports to be leftist, but not for this one – Meretz member and Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg said in the wake of the vote that despite the failure to pass the extension, “we showed durability and unity, despite our opposition to this law, and therefore we have reason to be proud this morning”.

Wait, you opposed the law but you voted for it?

Meretz said that it was insisting on some exception clauses which would allow for humanitarian cases to be considered individually despite the law – but these exceptions have already existed. They are cosmetic arrangements. Zandberg’s insistence that the exceptions would “improve reality for thousands of people” surely marks a nadir of morality: using the attempt to pass an extension of such a racist law to profile one’s magnanimity in the “exceptions”.

The self-congratulatory response of Zandberg is a typical Zionist hypocrisy – the ‘unity’ on the Zionist front is considered a value in itself, while the actual split in the Palestinian faction is implicitly regarded as an external matter. “The coalition managed to function as one man”, she said.

The Palestinian dissent is simply not manly and deserves no comment, as it were. While noting Shikli’s dissent on the right, Zandberg did not refer even once to the bigger dissent in Ra’am during a 12-minute Ynet interview on the matter.

This doesn’t end here. Israel is not suddenly going to open its gates to millions of Palestinians. Another racist law will surely be passed. The government may again attempt to pass a temporary ban, even as the right presses for a more permanent, quasi-constitutional “Basic law” on immigration to solidify the ban.

The Jewish State will never rest on its attempt to have “Maximum Jews, minimum Palestinians”, as even the liberal Yair Lapid insists.

Jonathan Ofir is an Israeli musician, conductor and blogger/writer based in Denmark