Law of Return v. Right of Return

Over the past two weeks, the Field Guide has taken the ongoing conflict in Gaza as an occasion to reflect on Israel’s numerous shortcomings with respect to liberalism. Though it may be the only western democracy in the Middle East, Israel too often exemplifies the very worst of the West: using its military to further colonial schemes; using apartheid to advantage one ethnic group over others; offering lame security arguments to justify its denial of human, political and civil rights to millions of people subject to its authority, for decades.

Having already discussed conditions in Gaza, the West Bank, and within Israel itself, today we conclude with an analysis of Israeli immigration policies – the face that Israel shows the world.

Liberalism’s most basic principle – procedural fairness – does not make clear what a state’s ideal immigration regime should be. Few argue for fully open borders between all countries, because when movement of people is too rapid, infrastructure and support systems can be overwhelmed, and health and safety can be impacted. And so we begin with the simple observation that regulations on immigration are neither good nor bad per se, but should be judged on their particularities.

Israel’s distinguishing immigration regulation is its “Law of Return,” which grants not merely legal residency, but Israeli citizenship, to any Jew who requests it – along with their spouse. Children and grandchildren of Jews are also entitled to citizenship.

Analogous to Israel’s “Law of Return”, several other liberal democracies offer citizenship to foreigners whose recent ancestors lived in that country. Italy, Ireland and Spain (among others) have a special citizenship track for people who can trace their roots back to those countries. While such laws are discriminatory, it is not unreasonable to preferentially offer a home to people who share an affinity for a place. Israel’s policy is however unique in that it is not based on ethnicity or nationality, but on religion. While converts to Judaism have an immediate right to Israeli citizenship, anyone who voluntarily renounces their Jewish faith does not.

The “Law of Return” has several aims. It is not only to offer a safe haven to Jews worldwide (laudable), but also to counter the demographic threat that Arabs pose to Israel’s tenuous Jewish majority (dubious). And the “Law of Return” has an important exception: spouses of Israeli citizens from certain Muslim-majority countries, as well as residents of the West Bank and Gaza, are not granted automatic citizenship. This law primarily discriminates against Arab Israeli citizens, who are far more likely to have spouses who fall under the exception.

The “Law of Return” must also be evaluated in light of Palestinian refugees’ claimed “Right of Return.” The 1948 Arab-Israeli War caused 700,000 Palestinian Arabs to flee what would shortly become Israel. They became refugees all across the region. Their departure from Israel was not necessarily voluntarily – many were coerced by Israeli military forces. Arab villages were destroyed, several massacres have been documented, and the sum total of Israeli policies vis-a-vis Arabs during and immediately following the 1948 War can be fairly described as a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

It is quite common and sensible for civilians to flee a war zone. Most uncommon was Israel’s refusal to allow Palestinians to reenter Israel and return to their homes and villages after hostilities ended. Compounding that injury, Israel expropriated, without compensation, the land owned by Arabs who fled, and has been using it for the past 65 years to settle Israeli immigrants. By one estimate, about 70% of all the land in Israel was stolen from Arab owners without cause or consideration.

And so it is today that the “Law of Return” allows a person to claim Israeli citizenship, simply by virtue of their being Jewish, even if they had never visited Israel; while other laws deny the right to enter Israel to people who lived there all their lives, as their ancestors had for centuries – simply because they are Arabs. Descendents of those 700,000 refugees now number upwards of 5 million, living in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and other countries. Most of them still lack citizenship anyplace. Some refugees today are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of refugees.

In immigration policy, as in all government functions, citizens deserve equal treatment. It is not reasonable for Israel’s Jewish citizens to have an easier time in bringing their family members from abroad, compared to Israel’s Arab citizens. And while It is not clear what precisely the government of one country owes the people of the world when it elaborates an immigration regime, the contrast between the “Law of Return” and the “Right of Return” is a gross injustice. Israel’s refusal to allow Arab civilians to return to their homes is an ongoing crime against humanity, which has only been exacerbated by the passage of time.







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