Israel’s dilemma: Who can be an Israeli?

A Bedouin girl stands in her yard in Israel. Denying Bedouin Arabs full realization of the rights of citizenship has alienated them and pushed them away from membership in the Israeli polity.
(Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)

Recently, Israel has been beset by a pair of controversies relating to its Arab minority: first, the proposal over whether to resettle Bedouin Arabs against their will in state-sponsored towns, and second, the renewed call by Israel’s foreign minister to “transfer” Arab residents of northern Israel to a new state of Palestine should one be established.

At issue here is not only the status of Israel’s Arab population but the concept of citizenship in Israel. If threats to the status of Israeli citizenship continue unchecked, Israel’s very democracy is imperiled.

Israeli citizenship is designed very differently from the American model. Here, if you are born in the country or become an American citizen, you retain your citizenship unless you seek to renounce it. U.S. citizenship is not conditioned on ethnic or religious origin, and every citizen has the same rights and responsibilities.


In Israel, it’s more complicated, with a variety of pathways to different categories of citizenship. All Jews in the world are eligible, under Israel’s 1950 Law of Return, to be fast-tracked to Israeli citizenship. And yet even citizenship for Jews is not simple.

Those born to a Jewish father rather than mother or converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbis may qualify for citizenship according to the Law of Return, but do not qualify as Jews in the eyes of Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs. Accordingly, they are precluded from marrying those registered by the ministry as Jewish because marriage in Israel is controlled by religious authorities. In fact, these Jews are, in some respects, accorded second-class citizenship in terms of their personal status.

Palestinian Arabs and Druze born in Israel are citizens by birth. But residents of East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after the 1967 Six-Day War, are not. They are conditional residents, not citizens — conditional on living in East Jerusalem continuously or, for those able to travel abroad for the purposes of study or work, maintaining a regular return schedule to ensure their residency is not endangered.

East Jerusalem Palestinians may apply for Israeli citizenship (with no guarantee of success), but the number who have had their permanent residency revoked by the Israeli government since 1967 is as large as the number who have been successful in attaining citizenship. For this reason, Palestinians in East Jerusalem live in constant fear of losing the right to live in their homes.

Similarly grim are the prospects of citizenship for migrant workers in Israel, who come from places like Thailand and the Philippines. Often, their children speak Hebrew as their first language, attend Israeli schools and even do military service. But this does not qualify them for citizenship. Nor do the thousands of African refugees in Israel have a path to citizenship, or even access to social benefits such as healthcare and work permits, under a government that seeks to expel them as “infiltrators.”

The situation of the Bedouin may be the most poignant, especially since they have lived in Israel’s Negev since long before the state was founded. They have Israeli citizenship, but their nomadic way of life has not blended easily with the norms of a modern state. Although the ancestral lands to which they claim ownership amount to less than 5% of the Negev, many in Israel oppose granting the Bedouin rights to these lands, on which they have dwelt for centuries. Alternatively, they seek to settle them into a few pre-designed townships. Their citizenship is unquestionably second class, especially when one compares their claims to land with those of Jewish settlers, who have established illegal outposts in the West Bank that frequently gain official sanction after the fact.


Denying Bedouin Arabs full realization of the rights of citizenship has alienated them and pushed them away from membership in the Israeli polity. As recently as 10 years ago, many Bedouin volunteered for military service; their allegiance to Israel was unquestionable. But this loyalty was not rewarded. And now many Bedouin feel like foreigners in their own land.

As if the growing confrontation with the Bedouin were not enough, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has revived the idea of drawing the boundaries of a new Palestinian state in a way that Palestinian townships currently part of Israel would overnight become part of the new state, thereby stripping residents of their Israeli citizenship. This would be part of a land swap for settlement blocs that Israel wishes to keep. By the foreign minister’s reasoning, transferring this land and all of its Israeli citizens to a future Palestinian state would help ensure a large Jewish majority in Israel.

The problem is that Arab Israeli citizens overwhelmingly oppose such a move. They understand that citizenship that can be taken away by government fiat is not really citizenship at all. Some 60 years ago, the prescient Jewish thinker Simon Rawidowicz declared that it is not only Jews who dwell on the land by right, not sufferance, but also the Palestinian Arab population of Israel. That principle is one consistent with the vision of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which calls for equal rights for all of the country’s citizens and is the bedrock of Israel’s claim to democracy.

It’s time to apply that standard uniformly. Simply put, citizenship should not be divided into classes. Israel must begin to construct a meaningful sense of Israeli identity and confer an equal stake in the well-being of the society on all those entitled to call themselves citizens. Rights of residence and freedom in personal status issues should be the same for all citizens, whether they are Jewish according to religious law, Jewish only by citizenship or non-Jewish.

Let the conversation begin.

Daniel Sokatch is chief executive of the New Israel Fund. David N. Myers is chairman of the UCLA History Department and a member of the New Israel Fund’s International Council.