Israel: Forget democracy – it’s the ‘Jewish demographic state’

'The lives of Ukranian refugees have been turned into a game of tug-of-war by Israeli policy' (AFP)

Lily Galili

Middle East Eye  /  March 22, 2022

Israeli reactions to non-Jewish Ukrainians seeking refuge, paired with the new citizenship law, reveal a once hidden, but now overt obsession with Jewish supremacy.

A few minutes after the Israeli parliament passed the new “citizenship law” by a landslide, which bars the naturalization of Palestinians from the occupied territories who are married to Israeli citizens, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked tweeted the following: “Jewish and Democratic State – 1; State of all its citizens – 0”. By “all citizens”, she meant non-Jewish citizens. 

The far-right politician’s decision to present her political victory with a football metaphor was cynically disrespectful. For the people involved, this is not a game: it is their lives. 

So too have the lives of Ukrainian refugees been turned into a game of tug-of-war by Israeli policy which can be summed up in one short sentence: Ukrainian Jews – more than welcome; Ukrainians partly Jewish – welcome. Non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees – better stay out. 

Last week was the week Israel officially renounced its tricky definition as a “Jewish Democratic State” and turned openly into a Jewish demographic state, one obsessed with population figures and the preservation of the Jewish fibre of Israel above all else. 

‘One hundred percent demography’

The phenomenon is, of course, not entirely new. Over the past 20 years, a demographic craze has dominated Israel and all of its decision making. A reminder: in 2002, the Israeli government put a freeze on the naturalization process of all Palestinians from the occupied West Bank who were married to Israelis for “security reasons”.  

That year, a special multidisciplinary committee of experts was nominated to design several options of separation from the Palestinians. 

At the time, a senior US State Department official approached Arnon Soffer, a renowned Israeli demographer on the committee, with a question.

What percentage of the separation maps was based on security issues and what percentage was based on demography, the official asked. “One-hundred percent demography,” Soffer replied.

For 2002, that was an unusually honest, private response. Twenty years later, the citizenship law passed last week openly refers to the nature of Israel as a Jewish state. 

This years-old demographic obsession has been well-disguised as security considerations. Referring to Syrian refugees a few years ago, then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel did not have the “demographic depth” to take them in.

Now, in March 2022, it is all out in the open. 1:0 to the Jewish state. The liberals in Israel choose to portray Ayelet Shaked as the embodiment of all-evil both behind the citizenship law and the tragic farce of the restrictions imposed on the Ukrainian refugees. It’s an inelegant way of avoiding the real confrontation with the core issues of what Israel really is – or wants to be.

In a Channel 12 poll released last week, 42 percent of Israelis said they favour restricting the number of refugees from Ukraine who can enter Israel while 16 percent were against the entry of all refugees. It is not just Shaked. It is us.

Facing facts

At a 2002 academic conference in the midst of the Second Intifada, the late General Shlomo Gazit, once head of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate, declared: “Democracy should be subordinated to demography.” His statement caused a public uproar. In 2022, this subordination is Israeli reality. Few challenge it. 

The Israeli left, locked in a strange coalition dominated by the right, raises a feeble outcry. The fear of dismantling this government and, most of all, the fear of Netanyahu coming back to power has a paralyzing impact that tops all moral considerations. 

The one argument that has been made against the racist policy embedded both in the citizenship law and the controversy over the refugees is Jewish history and the Holocaust in particular. Wrong. It is just a distortion of basic decent human conduct, Jewish or not Jewish. Using religion to justify evil is as wrong as using it to promote basic human rights or compassion. Moreover, it is not even constructive. 

Instead, there are facts that can refute what parades as rational justification for both wrongdoings: one of the main arguments presented to legitimise the citizenship law is information provided by security sources regarding the involvement of previously naturalized Palestinians in terrorist activity. 

In reality, according to data provided by Shabak, the Israeli secret service, 35 Palestinians who obtained citizenship by marriage to Israeli citizens were involved in that kind of activity. It is a known fact that involvement of women in terrorist activity is minor yet the citizenship law would apply to women as well. 

Based on this fact, Oded Feller, an advocate from the Tel Aviv-based Association for Civil Rights in Israel, told Yedioth Ahronoth that the security argument “seems to be just an excuse for a racist law that affects the life of a large group of people”. 

Facts refute fears over an influx of Ukrainian refugees who undermine the Jewish fibre of the state of Israel. Three weeks into the war, only 10,000 refugees have made it through the labyrinth of Israeli bureaucracy and are staying here for the time being. Most of them have friends or distant relatives here, even if the law of return does not apply to them. 

Simple logic suggests that refugees without an affinity or connection would not choose Israel over staying in European countries which are closer and now widely open to welcome them. Even xenophobic Poland has turned out to be user-friendly to its Ukrainian look-alikes. 

‘Nothing to do with compassion’

But these facts bring no consolation to Israel’s anti-refugee craze, most vocally represented by Channel 14 which is dominated by pundits who are ardent Netanyahu supporters. The range of issues they raise is painful.

Among others, a recent discussion focused on whether there was a connection between the arrival of refugees from Ukraine and an outbreak of polio in Israel. Yes, it happened. This discussion, led by the channel’s leading broadcaster and Netanyahu supporter, Shimon Riklin, took place, on air, on 3 March.

There actually is a very small scale  polio outbreak among unvaccinated children in the orthodox community in Jerusalem which is the one place you cannot find a single refugee. So what? Drawing the connection between the refugees and the outbreak is a classic false blame narrative, the kind Jews know well from history. And the connection is made for good reason: the very same Riklin tweeted on 10 March: “The reason for the left to want as many refugees from Ukraine as possible has nothing to do with compassion; the real reason is they don’t want Israel to be Jewish state.”

Riklin is certainly not alone. Even the head of Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority, officially in charge of the gates of Israel, resorted to racist stigma when he claimed at a parliament meeting that some of the Ukrainian refugees who were expelled from Israel upon entry, “came here to practise prostitution”. Yes, directly from bombing.  

The ultra-nationalist Jerusalem-based nonprofit Im Tirzu provided a more scientific argument: “Based on data from all relevant authorities, we face a flock of 30,000 per month of those who are not eligible by the law of return,” the group posted on Instagram and called for an urgent demonstration to protest this imminent danger. Strangely enough, the very same people and organisation in charge of the Jewish fibre of Israel are the very same who favour the annexation of 3.5 million non-Jewish Palestinians. 

In the midst of this evil, it is just sad to read the pleading posts on Facebook by Israeli family members and friends eager for help to save their relatives in Ukraine. To get the right advice, they specify the gender and location of their relative, but on many occasions have to add: “They are not Jewish.” This is, after all, the one factor that makes the difference.   

Lily Galili is a senior Israeli journalist and lecturer focusing on all aspects of Israeli society and immigration to Israel