Israel was established as a democratic Jewish state. While reasonable people may differ as to whether it is “too Jewish,” or how well it has fulfilled its promise of equal rights for all, few would dispute that the Law of Return is on its face antithetical to the core principles of democracy. Passed on July 5, 1950, two days after the anniversary of Theodor Herzl’s death, it guarantees every Jew automatic entrance and immediate citizenship. Members of other ethnic and religious groups may be accepted as immigrants or refugees, but Jews who “make aliyah” instantly acquire the right to vote, receive financial benefits, even run for the Knesset. Since the law privileges Jews and only Jews, its perils are obvious:
(1) It codifies a double standard. In contravention of the Declaration of Independence of 1948, which insures “complete equality of social and political rights to all [of Israel’s] inhabitants,” the law grants one group a superior legal entitlement, creating a hierarchy of human worth based on religious identity and setting the stage for other asymmetrical privileges.
(2) It nullifies and supersedes legitimate property rights. Jews with no claim to residence (aside from biblical assurances or messianic eschatology) are welcomed with open arms while Palestinians who hold keys to particular homes or deeds to particular property are denied entry.
(3) It serves hegemonic goals. Many who proselytize for privileged Jewish immigration espouse a not-so-hidden agenda. They want Jewish citizens to outnumber Arab citizens in order to insure the Jewishness of the state and concentrate power in Jewish hands. (And the Jews they want are usually Greater Israel triumphalists, not members of Brit Tzedek, B’nai Jeshurun, the Tikkun Community or your local lesbian-feminist havurah.)
Recognizing these problems, how can I, a civil libertarian and longtime critic of Israel’s discriminatory policies toward its Palestinian Arab citizens, defend the Law of Return?
Because in this case, I believe history trumps ideology and politics. The Jewish right to instant citizenship strikes me as a factually warranted, compensatory response to the truth of Jewish experience. In David Ben-Gurion’s words, “This right is inherent in every Jew by virtue of his being a Jew.” Since being a Jew has been enough in some places to mark one for persecution or death, it should be a ticket to safety at least on one spot on the globe. However–and this is where I part company with many Zionists–Jews should be entitled to no other prerogatives, claims, immunities or indulgences. Immigration is the only policy arena that merits diluting the purity of democracy with the poison of privilege.
Put simply, I view the Law of Return as the affirmative action program of the Jewish people. It’s a legal accommodation that has been earned in the same way that preferential educational and employment policies in the United States were earned by people of color: through suffering. If four centuries of slavery and institutionalized racism can justify affirmative action programs for American blacks whether or not they themselves were brought here in chains, then surely twenty centuries of oppression and annihilation–think Crusades, Inquisition, forced conversions, pogroms, the Gulag, the Holocaust–justify similarly discrepant favoritism for Jews in Israel.
Bias in favor of an “affected class” is an acknowledgment of the continuing vulnerability of individuals who belong to a disadvantaged group. Much as we Jews might yearn to be a people like any other, the events of three millennia attest that we tend instead to be universal pariahs, perennial exiles, the boat people of the world. I’m mindful of the arrogance of asserting national uniqueness–and of citing Jewish weakness in the face of Israeli military strength–but the fact remains that in every era of recorded time, someone somewhere had it in for the Jews. Egypt, Rome, Babylonia, Cyprus, Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Italy, Russia, Syria, Iraq, the former Soviet Union, Turkey, Yemen, Ethiopia–all have produced horrific tyrants and run-of-the-mill tormentors who have excoriated, demonized, humiliated, scapegoated, blood-libeled, ghettoized, banished or slaughtered Jews.