When racial profiling is a national policy

Palestinian citizens have many rights in Israel, but they are not equal citizens. Only by removing all discriminatory elements from the legal system will Israel cease to be a democracy of racial profiling.

Following one of his visits to Israel, Jewish-American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg praised last year the ease with which he underwent the security procedures at Ben-Gurion International Airport, compared with the long waits he experienced in U.S terminals. Racial profiling made all the difference: while Israeli Jews and many white Westerners – especially those with Jewish names – are rushed through the lines in Israeli terminals and gates, every person with a Muslim or Arab name or appearance – including Israeli citizens – is subject to long interrogations and searches. Solely by being Jewish, Goldberg is entitled to better treatment than Israeli citizens who actually live here.

Racial profiling at Ben-Gurion has received some attention in recent years because its discriminatory nature is so obvious: at the airport, one can actually see the Arab families being taken to a separate security check. Yet racial profiling is more than just a security technique which aims to make boarding more pleasant for non-Arab passengers. It is – especially under the Netanyahu governments – a national policy.

Recently, Israel has engaged in a dialogue with the American administration in an attempt to be made part of the visa waiver program. The effort reached a dead end because the Israelis wanted to reserve the right to refuse entry to “certain U.S. citizens” – i.e. Muslims – beyond the right to individual refusal which both countries will obviously keep. It even got to the point that AIPAC lobbied Congress to agree to discrimination against its own citizens by a foreign country, with no success.

Last week, the government and Knesset extended the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law, which prevents Palestinian citizens of Israel married to non-citizen Palestinians from living with their spouses in Israel. The law was described as a security measure, but as statements made during the time that the bill was initiated revealed, its real goal was demographic – namely, reducing the number of Palestinians who are entitled to Israeli citizenship, or are even allowed to live in Israel as residents.

In both cases, the Ben-Gurion Airport procedures were imitated in totally different fields. The Citizenship Law targets Palestinian citizens as a group: from now on, if they wish to marry a non-citizen (a member of their own community!) they are forced to live in their partner’s country. Imagine the outcry that would result from a policy demanding that every American Jew who marries a Jew from another country must leave the U.S. in order to live with his spouse – due to a national policy intended to limit the number of Jewish citizens and residents in the country – and you can understand the horror of a bill which was supported by almost all Jewish parties, including most members of the Labor Party.

The Citizenship Law stands out, but it doesn’t stand alone. One of the worst laws passed by the previous Knesset was also aimed specifically against the Palestinian minority. The so-called Nakba Law allows the finance minister to withdraw government support from institutions – including Palestinian ones – that commemorate the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948. Another successful piece of legislation directed against the Arab minority allowed small Jewish settlements in the north and south of Israel to reject candidates based on their ethnicity.

Palestinians, it bears repeating, make up 20 percent of the Israeli population – higher than the percentage of African Americans in the U.S. The recent vote over the Citizenship Law reveals that the current Knesset will not change the national policy of racial profiling. In fact, there is already an initiative to revive a failed bill from last year, which gives a higher status to the “Jewishness” of the state over its democratic nature. The bill states, for example, that the government will make efforts to build new housing projects for Jews, but not for members of other ethnic groups or nationalities. Despite heavy criticism of the bill in the past, it was made part of the coalition agreement between the Likud and the Jewish Home Party.

Adalah – the Legal Center for the Arab Minority Rights in Israel, estimates that there are 55 laws that discriminate against Palestinians. These shouldn’t be confused with practices of discrimination, which are present in Israel but can be found in other societies as well. In fact, while there some positive developments in policies towards the Arab minority (along with deterioration in other fields), the number of discriminatory laws is on the rise.

Palestinian citizens have many rights in Israel – especially compared with Palestinians under occupation – but they are not equal citizens. Even if Israel is forced to end the occupation, only by removing all discriminatory elements from its legal system and adopting a “state of all its citizens” model can it move toward becoming a truly democratic state, rather than a democracy of racial profiling.