Israel’s immigration policy is a constant minefield in the public discourse. There’s been ongoing controversy, for instance, about whether to reinstate the Citizenship Law that prevents Palestinians from becoming Israeli citizens by marrying Arab Israelis. Should Palestinians be able to become Israeli through marriage? One camp says such absorption is dangerous for Israel because these Palestinians are often a security risk and pose a demographic challenge to the Jewish majority. The second camp says preventing such marriages is discriminatory and even racist.
Why would we let a Swede who marries an Israeli become a citizen, but not someone from Ramallah? The recent debate over Israel’s absorption of refugees from Ukraine, though it’s a reaction to unique circumstances, is similar in principle. When the war began, refugees poured into Israel, some eligible for citizenship, some not. Immediately, a passionate debate broke out: Should Israel absorb only the Jewish refugees, or should it take in refugees regardless of whether they are Jewish?
Even if it’s resolved, this debate is of interest for those wanting to understand Israel. That’s because, much like the debate on Palestinians marrying Arab Israelis, the argument over Ukrainian refugee policy brings important values into conflict. The root question in both controversies is the same: To what extent do we want to ensure that a Jewish majority is maintained in Israel, and by what means? For those who consider the Jewish majority crucially important, the path is clear; for others to whom the Jewish majority is not important, Israeli policies protecting it seem like a medieval remnant of racist malice.
Then there are the rest of us, in the middle, with our many shades of gray. We could say: I want to maintain a Jewish majority, but a few more brides from the Palestinian territories do not endanger it. But then, what does “a few” mean, what if they become many, and how many is “many,” anyway? We wish to have a Jewish state; we also wish to be moral.
So too with Ukrainian refugees. The desire to sustain Israel as a Jewish state might argue for accepting mainly Jews as refugees. But there is also the desire to act in the world as a moral agent, a country that, when there are refugees to save, works to save them along with the rest of the international community. How do you reconcile these conflicting values? Compromise is the accepted way in politics. In the Ukrainian case, it could come in several forms.
One option: Absorb only Jews. By doing this, Israel could take in a significant number of refugees and thus fulfill its part in the extensive rescue effort. What’s the problem with this option? Mainly one of appearance. The citizens of the West expect that in wartime, countries will come to the rescue with no consideration of religion, culture or nationality.
Another option: Absorb both Jewish and non-Jewish refugees. Israel is home to more than a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many of whom aren’t Jewish, who have made aliyah since the early 1990s under the Law of Return, which in 1970 was amended to allow immigrants to settle in Israel if at least one grandparent was Jewish. The nation absorbed the Jews and the non-Jews and adapted. In the present crisis, though, however large the overall number, the fundamental problem would remain: Israel would absorb an unlimited number of Jews and add a limited quota of non-Jews. That is to say, Israel would still be looking at religion, culture and nationality as criteria for rescue.
In a rational world, Israel should receive commendation for pursuing the second option—taking in at least as many refugees as any other country, plus a large number of Jewish refugees. Alas, the world is irrational. There will always be those who emphasize not the large number of refugees that Israel receives, but the gap in quotas between different types. Instead of commendation, Israel will be marked for derision.
To staunch opponents of non-Jewish absorption, the crisis in Ukraine provides some rhetorical ammunition. Look at what is happening, they might say, in a place where Russian and Ukrainian populations are mixed, with no national or cultural coherence. On the other hand, those opposed to admitting only Jews might say: Look what happens when a nationalist culture takes precedence over human rights, when the strong ignore the wishes and interests of the weak.
Both sides are right, neither entirely so. One camp must remember that a “Jewish state” does not mean “a state without non-Jews.” The other side should keep in mind that simply having an immigration policy does not equate to discrimination and racism. No reasonable country opens its gates indiscriminately. No reasonable country shuts its ears to the cry of refugees. Israel should be a reasonable country. And in case of doubt, it had better err by being a little too generous than by being a little too strict.
Shmuel Rosner is a Tel Aviv-based editor and columnist and a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute.