People are often confused by the difference between citizenship and nationality when it comes to Israel. This issue most recently came up in the spat between Israeli celebrity Rotem Sela who asked, “when will anyone in this government tell the public that this is a state of all its citizens,” to which Prime Minister Netanyahu replied it wasn’t, and said that it was a nation state of Jews alone.
This was then further confused when Netanyahu also claimed that all Israeli citizens have equal rights. What’s going on here? Is Israel a state of all of its citizens, and do citizens have equal rights?
In short, I would say that Netanyahu was right about the state not being a state of all its citizens, and wrong about all citizens having equal rights.
But it’s more complex than that. Israel uses this dual construct of citizenship and nationality to confuse and even downright deceive the international community – indeed even its own citizens. It is my impression that many Israelis don’t even understand this fully.
The main confusion lies in the fact that Israel applies the notion of ‘nationality’ and ‘nation’ in a radically different manner to that which is commonly understood in most of the world today. Normally, ‘citizenship’ and ‘nationality’ are basically understood as a one thing. If you’re, say, a French citizen, you’re considered a French national. No French authority will consider you a ‘Jewish’ national – that would be racist! You’re French? Be a Jew, be a Muslim, whatever – you’re still a French national. On your passport it will say ‘Nationality – French’ – that will be your national identity.
Israel does not, repeat, does not, recognize an Israeli nationality. But we Israelis do have a notation in our passports that says: ‘Nationality – Israeli’. How can this be? It is so, because Israel is lying. Israel defines ‘Jewish’ as a Nationality, along with over 130 other ‘Nationalities’ including ‘Arab’. The purpose of this is to reserve exclusive national rights to Jews only, in the Nation State of the Jewish People. The ‘national’, institutionalized tie of Jews all over the world, by the Jewish state of Israel, is thus sweeping and extra-territorial.
This is the major, overarching paradigm that is above and beyond citizenship. It stands as a kind of ghost, a shadow, instructing all that the Jewish State does. When this is the case, ‘citizenship’ becomes a token, an alibi.
It would be folly to think, that when the Jewish Nation aspect is so overwhelmingly central in Zionism and in the Jewish State, that it would not have an effect on that supposedly neutral, democratic realm of citizenship. Of course it does. Yes, non-Jewish citizens can vote, but the Israeli institutions, including its parliament and its land administration apparatus is heavily biased against them. Thus, almost all of the lands in Israel are owned and administered by a state and state-affiliated institutions which have a stated priority to be biased towards ‘Jewish settlement’. There is a myriad of laws which more and less directly discriminate against Palestinian citizens (see Adalah database with over 65 discriminatory laws).
And this discrimination goes beyond the citizenship per se – this is extremely important to understand. One of the first and most blatant examples of this discrimination is the Law of Return (1950). With its subsequent amendments, the law allows any Jew, their spouse, or even a non-Jew who is a 3rd generation descendant of a Jew, to ‘return’ to Israel, even if they never set foot there before, and receive automatic citizenship. ‘Return’ how? ‘Return’ in the sense that they are supposedly an affiliated part of the Jewish ‘nation’, arcing across the millennia and times immemorial.
All this could in theory be fine, even if it is a novel mythological application – if it were not for the fact that it has a directly related discriminatory opposite side:
While those who have never set foot in the land are allowed and welcomed to ‘return’, those who have been expelled from it – the majority of the Palestinian people – are not allowed to return, and not afforded the citizenship that is automatically bestowed upon Jews.
Thus, the issue of ‘citizenship’ here presents itself in ‘absence’ – millions of Palestinians should have been allowed to be equal and free citizens – but they are denied that right. How are they denied it? By ethnic cleansing and by denial of their right to return. This is called ‘demographic engineering’ (see UN ESCWA report on Israeli Apartheid by R. Falk and V. Tilley, 2017). Having applied the engineering (Nakba, ethnic cleansing, etc.), the state can then maintain trappings of democracy (elections, etc.), without endangering the Jewish racial supremacy rule.
Thus, the citizenship afforded by Israel to its Palestinian subjects should be seen as an aberration – an alibi for the grave crime involving the denial of citizen rights to most Palestinians.
Most all Zionists consider this aspect an absolutely clear, legitimate and mainstream position. They frown upon the fact that international law demands the Palestinian return – at the same time taking very seriously that Jewish ‘right of return’. This is really Zionism 101.
But this example is only one of many, where the ‘national’ imperative, that is the Jewish nation, overshadows the role of citizenship, and in fact nullifies it – in actual fact, and in terms of its overall significance.
Simply put – Israel’s ‘Jewish nation state’ notion is a means of colonialist dispossession of the native Palestinians. By defining them as mere “Arabs” and defining “Arab” as a nationality, Israel also eases the conscience regarding their dispossession. Thus, Netanyahu, in further clarifying his position in the recent controversy, said:
The Arab citizens [in Israel] have 22 nation states around them and they do not need another.
You see, those other states are just part of a one big Arab “nation”. This Zionist concept thus robs Palestinians of their territorial belonging (and Netanyahu is certainly not the first Israeli leader to make such suggestions, they have also come from the Zionist left, see for example Golda Meir). At the same time, when it comes to the ‘Jewish nation’, the territorial aspect becomes overwhelmingly significant and local – Eretz Israel, the one Jewish State of all Jews everywhere – applying to a macro, global, extra-territorial Jewish ‘nation’.
This is, essentially, how I think the nationality and citizenship aspects pertaining to Israel need to be viewed. The ‘nation’, the ‘Jewish nation’, is the real lifeblood of Zionism and Israel, the Jewish State. The citizenship aspect is largely cosmetic upon that, hence often used as a masking alibi for the crime against humanity which Zionism and its birthchild, Israel, represent.