On Laws and Walls

This past week, Israel’s Justice Ministry issued new regulations that, if implemented, will make it impossible for many Palestinians and all undocumented immigrants to file suit in Israeli courts.

On the face of things, the regulations appear entirely sensible, in that they require plaintiffs to note either an Israeli ID or foreign passport number on any documents filed. Calling the rules “technical” in nature, the head of the Ministry’s Legal Counsel Department, Peretz Segal, told Haaretz that as things stand today, court clerks register legal documents without such identification, and the practice creates the potential for errors in the execution of court rulings.

But the face of things and their function aren’t always one and the same.

What looks like mere bureaucracy would in fact serve to close Israel’s justice system to the people most vulnerable to injustice: Migrants fleeing hunger and oppressive political regimes, and Palestinians who are stateless and (often) paper-less—the latter usually a result of some other Israeli regulation or bureaucratic machination, such as the thousands of Gazan and West Bank Palestinians who happened to not be in Gaza or the West Bank on the day that Israel conducted its first census of the territories, or the quarter of a million Palestinians who had their West Bank or Gazan residency covertly revoked by Israel between 1967 and 1994.

The new regulations are, then, “new” in word only, not in spirit. The endemic violence and bloodshed get a lot more attention, but the truth is that bureaucracy has long been Israel’s favorite tool of control.

From the military rule that governed Israel’s Arab population in the state’s early years, to the regulations and confiscations that make it all but impossible for Palestinians to build in East Jerusalem today; from the law that prevents Palestinians from living with Israeli spouses, to the West Bank’s mind-boggling and hydra-headed permit system—the state has always sought to manage the conflict and reshape the population of Israel, the territories, and the city of Jerusalem with an array of rules, regulations, and overlapping authorities, the sort of thicket of words and bits of paper that both exhausts and divides the people facing it.

Even for a dedicated observer, much less an individual trying to get through a day or a life, it can be hard to keep track of the requirements, the changes, and the administrative whims—a multi-layered Kafkaesque confusion that not only furthers the regulations’ goals but often escapes notice by outsiders. It’s a quiet, perpetual motion machine of control, intended to build and maintain the structure of the Jewish State—a structure that grows narrower and more restrictive every year.

These are legal and administrative walls, erected and expanded to surround the populace that the authorities see as their one true responsibility: Israeli Jews. Efforts to deny legal redress to migrants, or homes to Palestinian Jerusalemites, or freedom of movement in the West Bank are a kind of legal razor wire acting to fully separate the folks who matter from the folks who don’t.

In this regard, Israel’s rules and regulations are a natural precursor to and extension of the actual, physical walls with which the country is now nearly surrounded. There’s the Security Barrier to the east, and the anti-migrant fence to the south. The Gaza Strip is sealed off, and of course the northern border remains as closed as ever (despite the Arab Peace Initiative, first offered in Beirut in 2002). Only the Sea, it seems, cannot be fenced in.

All of these walls, literal and metaphorical, have purposes and rationales that for many supporters of Israel are enough. As someone who lived through waves of suicide bombings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I understand what it means when officials point out that the Security Barrier has led to the complete disappearance of that particular kind of violence.

But we fail Israel if we fail to ask what other consequences its restrictions bring.

Whatever else they may do, these restrictions damage real lives, creating and deepening enmity, and perpetuating a presumption that no one outside of Israel’s Jewish community may be genuinely trusted. They deny something essential about the humanity of their targets, and they fly in the face of Israel’s own Declaration of Independence.

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And, I would submit, they are bad for the Jews, as well.

Not just Jews who stand accused of not being quite Jewish enough by Israel’s state-authorized rabbinic courts; not just Jews who might want to help the vulnerable or build new bridges to old enemies.

In wrapping itself in xenophobic laws and fear-induced walls, Israel moves farther and farther away from being a light unto the nations, or even a nation among the nations, and closer and closer to the Jewish people’s past as a people apart—but this time, the hands pushing Jews into a narrow and isolated place are Jewish.

Ten years ago, when Israel began to build the 25-foot concrete wall it dubbed the Security Barrier, I discussed its construction with a friend. “What Israelis forget,” she said over dinner in Tel Aviv, “is that walls have two sides.”

“We’re building our own ghetto.”