Mark Regev, the well-known former spokesperson for the Israeli prime minister's office, was recently appointed as ambassador to the UK. One of Regev's first public engagements on assuming his post was to speak at Oxford University (a video of the event can be viewed here).
During the post-speech Q&A, Regev was asked whether it is "fair for Jews to have the right to make Aliyah [emigrate] to Israel, but not for Palestinians to have the right to return."
Under Israeli law, a Jew anywhere in the world can emigrate to Israel and receive citizenship. The same laws, meanwhile, served to denationalise Palestinians expelled in 1947-'49 – refugees who, to this day, have been prevented from returning home.
Regev's answer was categorical: "Yes", he shot back, before offering the following justification.
Many countries across the planet give specific rights to their nationals who are abroad, not just Israel. The Greeks do it, with Greek overseas communities, the Chinese do it with their communities abroad, the Irish do it, with their communities abroad. Is that racism?
This is neither a successful dodge nor a convincing rebuttal – but it is a revealing response.
According to Regev's answer, the equivalent in Israel's case would be preferential treatment for Israeli nationals who are abroad. Regev, however, is seeking to justify a status quo that privileges Jews, not Israelis – and at the expense of Palestinians (more on which below).
Thus in his attempt to present the State of Israel's immigration and citizenship law as essentially no different to many other states, Regev actually drew attention to its exceptionality. Irish Jews, for example, "are just as entitled to return to Ireland as Catholics."
Instructively, the ambassador repeatedly referred to self-determination – but that of the Jewish people, not Israelis. This "non-territorial definition" of self-determination "prevents the full political inclusion of non-Jews by degrading the status of (territorial) state citizenship."
To cite the ever-helpful illustration provided by the late Tony Judt, take France. France is the state of all the French; all French persons are by definition citizens of France; and all citizens of France are…French.
Israel, however, "by its own account is the 'state of all the Jews' (wherever they live and whether or not they seek the association), while containing non-Jewish (Arab) citizens who do not enjoy similar status and rights." (See my recent post, 'Is Israel Jewish like France is French?')
The ethnocratic boundaries of inclusion and exclusion established by Israel's Law of Return and Citizenship Law have meant that Palestinian citizens have always been discriminated against when it comes to immigration.
Since 2003, this disparity has been drastically exacerbated, with the imposition of severe restrictions on the right of "Israeli citizens…to apply for permits for their Palestinian spouses and children from the Occupied Palestinian Territory to enter and reside in Israel for purposes of family unification."
According to a senior European Union official, the law established "a discriminatory regime to the detriment of Palestinians in the highly sensitive area of family rights." It was upheld in 2012 by Israel's Supreme Court, who stated: "human rights are not a prescription for national suicide."
In contrast to Regev's superficial dismissal, Israeli law in fact "creates three tracks of naturalisation." The highest track is for Jews, with a second track "for non-Jewish foreigners, who can apply for Israeli residency status through a process of individualised interviews and background checks."
The lowest track, however, is for "Palestinian/Arab/Muslim spouses of Palestinian citizens of Israel who are prohibited from entry for the purpose of family unification." Excluded entirely, of course, are the Palestinian refugees whose ethnic cleansing in 1947-'49 established Israel's 'Jewish majority'.
An illustration of the settler colonial logic shaping Israeli laws is provided by a detail from the ambassador's own life. In 1982, Regev emigrated to Israel from Australia, spending seven years in a kibbutz that was, like so many, established using the land of expelled Palestinian refugees.
For Regev, however, Palestinians are not refugees with lands and properties, memories, and rights to return and restitution; they are a threat. Regev continued his answer at Oxford as follows.
My problem is that Palestinians today say, 'Well, even in peace, you have to be the homeland for their people' [sic]. In other words, they want to demographically try to destroy the Jewish state, they're saying there is something fundamentally illegitimate about the Jewish state.
Regev, reflecting the dominant ideology and policies of the state he represents, sees Palestinians not as human beings with rights, but as a doomsday weapon of 'demographic destruction'. So, ambassador, to direct your own question back to you, is that racism?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.