Israel marriage ban too racist even for apartheid South Africa

Ali Abunimah

The Electronic Intifada  /  March 10, 2023

Israel is a country where people “can be assured they will not be persecuted or discriminated against because of what they believe or whom they love,” former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg boldly asserts.

Writing in The New York Times on 5 March, the billionaire appears to suggest – in line with standard pinkwashing propaganda – that Israel’s recognition of same-sex marriages makes it an exemplar of respect for individual rights.

As such, Bloomberg warns, Israel’s shining democracy needs to be defended from legal reforms proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Those proposals have spurred thousands of Israelis to protests in the streets for weeks against what many are calling a judicial coup.

Like other liberal Zionists, Bloomberg fears that the changes would rob Israel’s judiciary of its supposedly enlightened independence as well as stoking capital flight that could endanger the country’s alleged position as a technological “start-up nation.”

Bloomberg paints a picture of an Israel built on the “shared values” of “freedom, equality [and] democracy” all “sustained by a commitment to the rule of law.”

But like so much else in Bloomberg’s article, the Israel of his imagination is totally unrecognizable to anyone with even a tenuous hold on reality.

You can’t just marry who you want

In fact, Israel does not permit same-sex marriage, although it does recognize such marriages if performed abroad.

Israel does not even allow marriages between a man and a woman unless they are of the same religion. Mixed religious marriages are banned and there is no option for civil marriage – although, again, Israel does recognize such marriages only if they are performed in another country.

But the Jewish state’s persecution and discrimination against people based on what they believe and whom they love does not end there.

In 2003, Israel adopted a law prohibiting Israeli citizens who marry Palestinians from the occupied West Bank or Gaza Strip, or nationals from several other regional states, from living with their spouse in Israel.

The “emergency measure” has been renewed every year – except in 2021 – when it fell victim to Netanyahu’s efforts to discredit the coalition that briefly ousted him from the prime minister’s office.

But in March 2022, Israeli Jewish racists were able to come together across party lines to renew the legislation.

Although nominally justified as a “security” measure, Israeli leaders have never been shy about admitting the true purpose of the law: to prevent the growth of the Palestinian population within Israel.

Indeed, last year they dropped the “security” pretense and inserted a clause confirming that the law’s purpose is to “establish restrictions on citizenship and residence” that take into consideration “the fact that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state.”

All of Israel’s tight restrictions on who can marry whom are aimed at ensuring continued Jewish demographic and political supremacy.

As such, even if they differ in the details, Israel’s policies are very much in line with the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act that existed in apartheid South Africa, or the bans on interracial marriages that existed in some US states until they were overturned by the Supreme Court in 1967.

And because they are aimed at ensuring the domination of one racial group over another, these restrictions are part of how Israel perpetrates the internationally recognized crime of apartheid.

Targeting Palestinians

The 2003 law reinforced the already existing restrictions on Israeli Jews and Palestinians marrying one another, but its main target was always Palestinian citizens of Israel, who most often marry Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza due to close familial and communal ties.

From the Zionist perspective, the law not only prevents more Palestinians from coming to Israel, but has the added benefit of forcing any of the two million Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship or residency to leave the country if they want to marry and start a family with the person they love.

“This extreme racist measure, practiced against Palestinians for over 20 years, would not have passed even in apartheid South Africa,” Adalah, a group that is mounting legal challenges to the law, said after the Knesset renewed it once again on 5 March.

“This law is not just another one of the countless forms of discrimination against Palestinians by Israel; it is a violation of the most basic human rights and an invasion of the most intimate space of the family unit,” the group added.

Adalah points out that “even the South African Supreme Court struck down similar measures during apartheid.”

Not so surprisingly, I’ve found virtually no coverage of this latest reaffirmation of Israeli apartheid and even less international criticism.

Adalah, which advocates for the rights of Palestinians in Israel, is taking inspiration from the successful battle waged decades ago by South African activists, lawyers and ordinary people against that country’s racist marriage laws.

In December, Israel’s high court heard petitions against the 2003 law. The court, which almost always ends up giving “legal” cover to Israel’s most racist and violent practices against Palestinians, has yet to rule.

But given its history there’s little reason to be hopeful – whether Netanyahu’s reforms go through or not.

As for Michael Bloomberg, he reminds us that throughout his public life he has “steadfastly supported Israel” and has “never gotten involved in its domestic politics or criticized its government initiatives.”

He brags that while Israel was bombing Gaza in the summer of 2014, killing an average of 11 Palestinian children per day for 51 days, he hopped on a plane to Tel Aviv to demonstrate his unconditional support.

Invisible Palestinians

Now, however, with Netanyahu’s proposed reforms threatening rights that Jews enjoy, but that have always been denied to Palestinians, Bloomberg declares that “my love for Israel, my respect for its people and my concern about its future are now leading me to speak out against the current government’s attempt to effectively abolish the nation’s independent judiciary.”

Meanwhile, his entire article contains one throwaway reference to Palestinians and claims that Israel exists “in one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods” – a racist trope that directly evokes how many white Americans stoke fear about and justify pervasive police violence in predominantly Black urban areas.

That said, Bloomberg, just like other prominent American Jewish supporters of Israel who are now speaking out in defense of Israel’s supposed democracy, surely knows the horrific reality that Palestinians are subjected to – even if they won’t admit it.

It is precisely the ruse that measures like the racist marriage law are “temporary” – even after 20 years – just like the notion that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is “temporary” even after 55 years – that allows liberal Zionists to pretend Israel is anything other than what it is: a grotesque settler-colonial apartheid regime that practices the worst forms of racism and discrimination known to humanity.

Ali Abunimah is executive director of The Electronic Intifada