Israel’s ‘national suicide’

Mark LeVine writes: Say what you will about Israel’s High Court of Justice, it knows how to name a decision.

In titling last Wednesday’s legal decision, upholding the controversial Citizenship Law that prevents Palestinian spouses of Israeli citizens from living in Israel “Human rights are not a prescription for national suicide”, the court’s majority well summed up the existential predicament Israel faces today – indeed, has always faced – as it attempts to be both Jewish and democratic.

“National suicide” is, of course, an incredibly loaded term in the Israeli context. In the historical shadow of the Holocaust, Chief Justice Asher Grunis’s appellation immediately raised the spectre of an existential threat to the Jewish people, or nation (Am Yisrael), being posed by the mere possibility of Palestinian Arabs joining Israeli society through marriage.

Right-wing lawmakers such as National Union chairman Ya’acov Katz have declared that the law would protect Israel from “the threat of being flooded with two-to-three million Arabs from outside its borders”. But such claims are utterly nonsensical. The true number, as Grunis and the five other Justices who joined the 6-5 majority surely know, would be in the low thousands.

So why would they argue that allowing Palestinian spouses to become Israeli, which as the decision’s title clearly admits is a basic human right, constitutes an act of “national suicide” for Israeli Jews?

To answer this question, we need to consider other possible meanings of the national suicide claim. We could imagine that the justices believe that recognising such marriages would accelerate the already “dangerous” trend towards demographic equality between Jewish and Palestinian citizens, based on higher fertility rates among Palestinians.

The only problem with this oft-repeated claim is that it’s false; the growth rate among the Palestinian population of Israel has actually slowed in the past decade, while those of religious Jews has exploded.

Simply put, the threat of a Palestinian “demographic bomb”, as Prime Minister Netanyahu has called it, is little more than a contrivance to justify the further exclusion of Palestinians from full citizenship rights within Israel.

But accurate or not, the average Jewish Israeli is likely not spending much time parsing the logic or statistical foundations of the High Court’s decision – because they understand the deeper meaning of the argument underlying the decision’s title: to extend full human rights to Palestinians will lead inevitably to the “national” – that is, political – suicide of Israel as a Jewish state.


Because to recognise that Jews and Palestinians can become one in the most intimate way possible – through love, sex and children – is to open Israeli Jews to the possibility that there is nothing essential that separates them from Palestinians, that as human beings with deep roots in this land, Palestinians have the same human rights as Israeli (or diaspora) Jews.

Once people accept this reality, Zionism – which, at its core, is based on the exclusive Jewish claim of rights to and sovereignty over the Land of Israel – loses whatever remains of its moral and political legitimacy.

Such a recognition, then, would spell the death knell, not of Israeli Jews as people, but of Zionism as a viable political ideology.

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