Citizenship For All?


The Israeli activist who recently spoke out at the U.N. Security Council against Israeli settlements should be stripped of his citizenship, the whip of Jerusalem’s ruling coalition has claimed.

Stabbing his finger into the air with each word for emphasis, Likud member David Bitan expressed his disdain for Hagai El-Ad of the left-wing human rights group B’Tselem. “We need to remove his citizenship,” Bitan said, during a TV panel discussion.

It wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment pronouncement. Bitan was clear that he has looked into the legal process for doing this – and while he hasn’t yet found a way, he’s still trying.

“No Israeli citizen should go before the Security Council and ask for sanctions against the State of Israel and the Israeli public,” Bitan reasoned, referring to the speech two weeks ago in which El-Ad urged the Security Council to use its clout to end what he termed “the injustice known as the occupation of Palestine.”

Bitan subsequently wrote on Facebook that his position doesn’t come from a desire to harm the freedom of expression – then he bafflingly elaborated that this is exactly what he wants to do, albeit in a limited context. He clarified that he isn’t acting because El-Ad is opposed to “one policy or another,” but because El-Ad expressed his stance abroad, at the Security Council.

Around the time of his Facebook post it emerged that Bitan, disappointed by the difficulty he is encountering in stripping El-Ad of his citizenship under existing laws, wants to enact legislation that removes the citizenship of anyone who appears before an international organization that can enact sanctions and asks it to use such powers against Israel. This seems to now be at the top of his list of priorities for the Knesset winter session, which starts Oct. 31.

El-Ad’s decision to appear before the Security Council and speak out so strongly against his country’s policies, urging U.N. action to confront them, angered and upset many Israelis. It seemed to damage B’Tselem’s cause at home, harming the standing of the organization in the eyes of the Israeli public and harming its ability to get its voice heard domestically.

But unwise or insensitive action does not provide grounds for stripping somebody’s citizenship.

Talk about playing into the hands of Israel’s critics! Bitan has prompted them to prop up their oft-misinformed arguments against Israel by saying, “Look what it does to its OWN people.”

Where would the idea of nullifying citizenship end? Addressing the Security Council will cost you your passport, so why not foreign parliaments? And if we’re including foreign parliaments, why not high-level conferences abroad? But the same conference delegates who invite a hard-left Israeli activist may subsequently travel to Israel, so perhaps such activists shouldn’t be allowed near them when they visit Israel. And it’s arbitrary to focus only on speech; what about monitoring written material or videos? A slippery slope, indeed.

Politicians in Jerusalem need to steer clear of this kind of talk about nullifying citizenship not only for the sake of Israelis and Israel’s general image internationally, but also for the sake of its connection with world Jewry.

Israel constantly states that citizenship is a right for every Jewish person (and for many others with Jewish lineage). The beauty of this unique law of the State of Israel is that it transcends politics and religious observance, and tells all Jews that they can automatically receive citizenship. The spectacle of Israel trying to strip an existing citizen, a Jewish man, of his citizenship is hardly the best advertisement for inclusive Israeli citizenship rights.

I’m not saying that Bitan’s plan will cause a crisis of confidence among diaspora Jews who plan to make aliyah over the coming months, but it shakes the assumption that citizenship rights are something that stand firmly above politics. Israeli citizenship must not become a political football.

Even if Bitan’s plan doesn’t happen, it remains an idea that is now under discussion and can’t be put back into the bag. Bitan’s type of speech helps to portray activists like El-Ad as the ultimate bogeymen, and push the boundary in the Israeli discourse of what is an acceptable response.

Bitan is giving Israeli society what he thinks it needs — a target against which to direct frustration and anger; a scapegoat for Israel’s headaches in the international arena, even though the U.N. session that B’Tselem attended would have had all the same discussions with or without El-Ad.

The season for ostentatiously over-the-top measures is underway among Palestinians, too. Palestinian security forces detained four Palestinians over Sukkot for visiting the sukkah of a nearby settler. The residents of the Palestinian village Wadi al-Nis went to drink coffee with Oded Revivi, mayor of the Efrat settlement, as they have neighborly ties. Palestinian forces arrested them afterwards.

The local Palestinian deputy-governor, Mohammad Taha, has said that visiting settlers is “completely unacceptable.” The Palestinian establishment is understood to view this as a high-profile deterrent against what it terms “normalization,” meaning the establishment of ties with settlers.

Efrat’s ties with local Palestinians are not undermining support for Palestinian nationalism, but they are finding solutions to some day-to-day challenges and they are allowing residents of the settlement and Palestinian villages to humanize the other. But the message being broadcast to Palestinians, with each bulletin on these detentions, is that coffee with settlers can cost you your freedom.

People say that the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships can’t agree on anything; how wrong they are. The tendency to unleash over-the-top measures against easy targets spans the leaderships on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.