History of Israeli nationality

The history of Israeli nationality refers to the origin of the concept of Israeli as a nationality.

Palestine, part of which would one day become the State of Israel, was hewed out of the Ottoman Empire by Zionism and the British Mandate. The British establishment of colonial political boundaries allowed the Jews to develop autonomous institutions such as the Histadrut and the Knesset.[1] It was during the 1930s that the Zionist movement began to encourage immigration to Palestine. The resulting influx of Jewish immigrants was crucial for the functioning of these new institutions in what would, on May 14, 1948, become the State of Israel.[2]

Jewish and Israeli immigration

Though there was a native Jewish population in Turkish Palestine, the first wave of Jewish immigration, or aliyah, to Palestine occurred between 1882 and 1903. These Jews were for the most part fleeing the pogroms and anti-Semitism of czarist Russia and the Ukraine.[3] Some hardened idealists were motivated by a desire to return to their homeland and rebuild their country. These would form the basis of the Kibbutz movement, and would lay a foundation for the Second Aliyah.

The Second Aliyah brought Jews from Russia who were imbued with Marxist ideology as well as those who wanted a better life. In 1909 Kibbutz Deganya was founded. An invention of the Russian projects, the Kibbutz was meant to actualize Marxism while cultivating the land. At the other end of the spectrum, Tel Aviv was founded the same year. A center of capitalization, Tel Aviv represented the progress of the land’s industry.

6 million Jews are currently residing in Israel. This is mostly, if not entirely, the result of immigration and the Zionist goal of uniting the Diaspora in a single territory. Three million Jews, mainly from Islamic countries and Eastern Europe, have immigrated to Israel since it claimed independence.[4]

The first massive wave of Jewish immigration in the new State occurred between 1948 and 1951. During this time, 688,000 olim made aliyah to Israel. These immigrants were mostly composed of refugees from Nazi concentration camps, Jews from Arab countries, and Jews who had been refused entry to Israel under the British Mandate (White Paper of 1939).

Between 1952 and 1989 1.2 million immigrants acquired Israeli citizenship by right of return. 750,000 of them were from Arab countries including; Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya. In 1989, a large number of Jews were finally permitted to leave the former Soviet Union. They were encouraged to settle in Israel.[5]

Israeli citizenship acquisition

Law of Return

Section 1 of the Law of Return grants every Jew the right to come to Israel. Under the law, all Jews are seen as potential citizens of the state and are granted citizenship immediately on immigration.[6] Citizenship is granted on the day of arrival in the country or when the individual receives a certificate stating that he is indeed an oleh. An oleh has three months to decide whether s/he wishes to become a citizen and can renounce his or her citizenship during this time. The right to an oleh certificate may be denied if the person is engaged in activity directed against the Jewish people, endangers public health or security of the state, or who has a criminal past that may endanger public welfare[7]

The right of return is based on the principles of jus sanguinis which becomes apparent in the 1970 amendment of section 4B of the Law of Return which grants citizenship to "a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew".[8] Under this amendment, children born outside the State but to Israeli parents are automatically granted citizenship. This same amendment also defines who shall be considered a Jew. For the purpose of this law, the term "Jew" means a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion."[9]

However, with the imposition of citizenship comes the imposition of certain obligations attached to it, such as military service. An Israeli citizen, even those living outside of the state will be recruited for obligatory military service at age 18.[10]

The Law of Return is fairly exclusive in that it only applies to Jews. Those who do not have a pre-existing affiliation with the Jewish faith have to undergo a rigid naturalization process. There exist three possible methods for non-Jews to obtain Israeli citizenship which include; residence, birth, and naturalization.[11]



According to the Israeli Nationality Law of 1952, those who remained in Israel from the establishment of the State in 1948 until the enactment of the Nationality Law of 1952, became Israeli citizens by residence or by return. Consequently, Palestinian refugees who discontinued residency in Israel after the establishment of the State, lost their entitlement to automatic Israeli citizenship by right of residence.[12] Section 3 of the 1952 Law set three conditions to acquisition of citizenship by residence. First, one must currently be residing in Israel. Second, one must have been present in Israel after the establishment of the state in 1948. And lastly, one must be registered in the 1951 population registry. These conditions are meant to grant citizenship to those who stayed in Israel during the 1948 war and to deny status to those who had fled.[13] Those who did not meet the necessary conditions were left stateless since Palestinian citizenship was abolished with the end of the British Mandate.[14]


A person born in Israel to an Israeli parent, automatically acquires citizenship at birth. The parents do not have to be married, and only one of the parents needs to be an Israeli citizen. This also applies to children born outside of Israel to an Israeli parent, who are granted automatic Israeli citizenship at birth. This may impose duties of citizenship on individuals born outside the country, such as being subject to conscription at age 18, like any other citizen. The Nationality Law was amended in 1980 to limit the right (and obligation) of citizenship by birth abroad to only one generation.[15]


Whether or not an individual is granted citizenship by means of naturalization is entirely dependent on the Minister of Interior. Six pre-requisites, listed under Section 5 of the Citizenship Law, must be met to acquire citizenship by naturalization:

  • be in Israel,
  • have been in Israel for three out of the last five years,
  • have been entitled to permanent residency,
  • have settled or have expressed interest to settle in Israel,
  • have basic knowledge of Hebrew language, and
  • have renounced his or her prior citizenship or has proved willingness to terminate it upon becoming an Israeli citizen.

If the Minister of Interior approves the application for naturalization, the naturalized person is entitled to citizenship after taking the following oath: "I declare that I will be a loyal citizen of the State of Israel."15

This is the process that non-Jews must go through in order to become a citizen. Olim do not have to renounce citizenship that they may possess in other countries since they are entitled to the right of return.[16]

Rights and obligations of citizenship

Most civil, economic, and social entitlements apply equally to citizens and residents. However, citizens differ from residents in two important domains. Firstly, in terms of obligations, all citizens, male and female, are required to serve in the military for a given amount of time. Secondly, in terms of rights, only citizens are entitled to full political participation, which is required in order to vote for members of the Knesset and the Prime Minister. It is also a necessary precondition for employment in the civil service. The right to enter, remain in, and leave the country freely is also bestowed on citizens with the presentation of a valid passport at an official frontier station.[17]


The army plays a central role in creating a united and nationalized people. Conscription is universal for all men and women from the age of 18. Men are obligated to serve in the army for 3 years and women for 2 years. Once they have served the allotted time, they are given the option of renewing their contract.[18] Israel is considered a nation under arms with the defense of the State as a common uniting goal of all those who serve7. The army also plays an active role in the absorption and assimilation of immigrants through intense social mixing. It can be said that Israeliness is linked with enrolment in the army and not with citizenship per se. Those who are exempt from military service (Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews) are seen as existing outside of the united national community.[19]

Women in the military

The 1949 Defense Service Law imposes a duty on every Israeli citizen to serve in the military. The role of women as important contributors to statehood building, and as full and equal citizens, is reflected by this law.[20] However, this law also acknowledges women as potential mothers. Under section 39 of the 1986 Defense Service Law (consolidated version) women who are currently pregnant or who are already mothers are exempt from obligatory military service. Women who are married and thus potential mothers, by the age of recruitment, can enter the military on a voluntary basis. While this law is meant to prove the equality of all Jewish Israeli citizens, it relegates women to a second class position, where their primary contribution to the nation is as mothers. Conversely, male citizens who are husbands or fathers do not enjoy such exemptions.[21]

On occasion, males may be able to defer their mandatory recruitment into the army to pursue their academic studies. This deferment in granted in order to have a certain number of trained professionals needed by the army.[22]

Women provide an array of non-combatant services in the military such as teachers and truck drivers.[23] This also serves the function of freeing men from non-combatant positions, maintaining a strong defense.

Service in the IDF

Israel relays mainly on the standing army. Israel's main army consists of conscripts, volunteers, non commissioned officers, and professional officers.

National military service is mandatory for any Israeli over the age of 18, with the exception of the Arab Muslim and Christian population (currently estimated at around 20% of the Israeli population[24]) and many ultra-Orthodox Jews (currently estimated at around 8% of the Israeli Jewish population[25] and rising steeply). Druze and Circassian men are liable, by agreement with their community leaders. Members of the exempted groups can still volunteer, but very few do, except for the Bedouin where a relatively large number of men have tended to volunteer. Other exceptions may be made on religious, physical or psychological grounds (see Profile 21). Men serve three years in the IDF as part of the mandatory regular service, while women serve two.

The standing army also includes Permanent service (called "Sherut Kevah" in Hebrew) which is designed for soldiers whom choose to continue serving in the army after their regular service, for a short or long period, and in many cases making the military their career.

The IDF also keeps a large number of army reserves, consists of those individuals who have finished their obligatory service Reservists are kept well trained and can be mobilized within 48 hours. This is an economically efficient way of having a strong defense force without the necessity of a large standing army. The age in which Israelis have been aging out of the reserves has been dropping steadily over the past 30 years.

Integration of the army and society

Israel has an extremely heterogeneous population, with approximately half of its inhabitants being immigrants. The Israel Defense Forces operates as an integrating and socializing mechanism, uniting these various immigrant populations.[26] The army accomplishes this by offering Hebrew classes to the immigrant population as well as certain technical and vocational courses.[27]

The army also runs research laboratories where top scientists develop electronic technologies for both civilian and military use.[28]

Loss of citizenship and dual citizenship

Once Israeli citizenship is acquired, it becomes very hard to renounce. Citizenship is seen as a personal allegiance between the individual and the State in which rights and obligations for life are a central component. To acquire citizenship, the individual must be willing to risk his or her life for the country, via military service. Citizenship may only be renounced once the Minister of the Interior has expressed his consent on the individual’s request. Under section 10 of the Citizenship Law, an Israeli citizen of full age may decide to renounce their citizenship. This renunciation will only take effect once the Minister of the Interior has expressed consent over the claim.

Jewish immigrants automatically acquire Israeli citizenship upon settling in Israel by right of return. They are not legally required to renounce other citizenship affiliations that they may have and thus, many of them hold dual citizenship. There is one rare circumstance under which Israeli citizenship may be revoked. Under the 1980 amendment of Citizenship Law, an individual may be expatriated if they acquire citizenship or establish residency in a country that is in a formal state of war with Israel.[29] However, under normal circumstances, Israeli citizenship is presumed to take priority over other national affiliations as is reflected by section 14(b) of the Citizenship Law. It becomes exceedingly difficult for individuals who have taken up residence in another country to renounce their Israeli citizenship and the accompanying rights and obligations, such as military service.[30]

Jewish nationality and identity

Since the Israeli State was founded as a Jewish State in the land of Israel, it becomes difficult to separate Jewish from Israeli nationality. In fact, the Knesset, or parliamentary assembly of Israel, enacts laws with religious underpinnings. Such laws include; ‘observance of the Sabbath, provision of kosher food to the army, abortion, and forbid, among other things, flights by the national airline El Al on Sabbath and festival days, the sale of bread during the Passover, raising pigs and selling pork, and "indecent" advertisements’. Thus, even though Judaism is not the official religion of the state, religious rules have integrated themselves into the public sphere.[31]

The 1950 enactment of the Law of Return gives every Jew, residing in any country, the right to immigrate to Israel,[32] and automatically claim citizenship. The primary aim of the Law of Return was to unite a dispersed and persecuted Jewish people after the holocaust. This relates back to earlier Zionist goals of ‘ingathering the exiles’, or uniting the Jewish Diaspora. This raises a problem, namely, what is Jewishness? And who is considered to be Jewish?[33]

In Judaism, religion is passed on through the mother. However, until 1970, children of Jewish fathers could be registered as Jews based on ethno-national origin, known as leom. In 1970, conversion was acceptable grounds for claiming recognition of Jewishness. However, this raised similar issues to the marriage debate. Could someone be registered as Jewish, according to the Ministry of the Interior, if they were converted by the less strict sects of Conservatives or Reforms in the Diaspora? The Supreme Court, to the dismay of the Orthodox monopoly, ruled that such persons could be registered as Jews.[33]

Having Jewish identity entitles those holders to significant rights. Every Jew who settles in Israel ‘is allowed generous tax relief during the first years, loans at reduced interest, and various other kinds of help to facilitate integration’.[33]

While being Jewish may serve to provide a common feeling among a dispersed people, it is not enough to awaken a real national consciousness. Two institutions, set up by the State, are responsible for raising this national awareness: the school and the army.[34]


Education plays a crucial role in the emergence of a common Jewish culture for several reasons. Education in Israel is divided into sectors. for Jews instruction takes place in Hebrew, which unites the Jewish people with a common tongue, serving to create strong national cohesion. Educational institutions also serve a civic function. According to the 1953 law on national education, teachings are meant to serve the patriotic ideal. The connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is emphasized through the teaching of history, Bible study, and literature.[34] The Arab minority has its own Education system which uses Arabic as the basic language and has Fridays or Sundays off, as well as Muslim or Christian holidays rather than the Saturday and Jewish holidays.


Marriages in Israel are performed under the auspices of the religious community to which couples belong. Matrimonial law is based on the Millet or confessional community system employed in the Ottoman Empire, which was not modified during the British Mandate and remains in force in the State of Israel.

The religious authority for Jewish marriages is the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Marriages among Christians, Muslims and Druze are under the jurisdiction of their own religious authorities. There is no provision for inter-faith marriages and no civil marriage in Israel. The Israeli Interior Ministry registers marriages on presentation of proper documentation, but plays no role in validating them. However, civil marriages performed abroad, including same-sex marriages, are recognised by the state.[35]

It is illegal under Penal Law Amendment (Bigamy) Law, 5719-1959 to marry in Israel while already married. This applies to members of each confessional community, including the Jewish and Muslim.[36]


‘Minorities’ is a term used to denote non-Jewish citizens of the State of Israel based on distinct religion, sect, or form of settlement and includes, but is not limited to; Muslims, Christians, Druze, Circassians, and Bedouins. In 1948, with the creation of the State, came the establishment of a Ministry of Minorities, which operated within the Ministry of the Interior.[37]

When Israel claimed independence in 1948, 160,000 Arabs who remained in the territory (750,000 fled or were expelled in a mass exodus) became Israeli residents and a new minority where they had once been the majority. They were deemed traitors by those who had left and were placed in an awkward situation in the new State which claimed to be Jewish, but advocated equality for all its citizens. The Declaration of Independence explicitly promised "the most complete social and political equality to all inhabitants without distinction of religion, race or sex." By 1949, Arabs could vote and stand for election however; their civil liberties were severely restricted. For example, the Arab minority had very little freedom of movement within the territory. This was enforced by a military administration which remained in place until 1966.[38]

Israeli citizenship was only granted to those Arabs who had resided in the territory, without interruption, between 1948 and 1952, when a law on nationality was passed. Thousands of Palestinian refugees who fled Israel temporarily during the Independence War (1947–1949) could claim Israeli citizenship. They were only granted citizenship in 1980. However, in their absence the 1950 law of Acquisition of Absentees’ Property was enacted leading to a massive transfer of territory to the Israeli State.[39]

Formally, Jews and Palestinian Arabs both enjoy equal citizenship rights. However, Arabs are not recruited to the military, which limits their ability to exercise their citizenship practice, rendering them less full members of the state.[40] Soldiers are often entitled to certain benefits such as supplementary children allowances, tax credits, assistance in mortgage payments, etc. Since the Arab minority is not called to serve in the military, they do not become entitled to these benefits as often, exacerbating wealth inequality.[41] However, Arab citizens may volunteer for service in the IDF on the same grounds as non-Arab Israelis.

See also




  • Al-Qazzaz, Ayad (1973). "Army and Society in Israel". Pacific Sociological Review. 16 (2): 143–165. 
  • Dieckhoff, Alain (2006). "The nation in Israel: between democracy and ethnicity". In Haldun Gülalp. Citizenship and Ethnic Conflict: Challenging the nation-state. New York: Routledge. pp. 83–97. 
  • Migdal, Joel S. (2001). Through the lens of Israel: Explorations in State and Society. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 
  • Rekhess, Elie (2007). "The evolvement of an Arab-Palestinian national minority in Israel". Israel Studies. 12 (3): 1–29. 
  • Rosen-Zvi, Issachar (2004). Taking Space Seriously: Law, Space and Society in Contemporary Israel. England: Ashgate Publishing Limited. 
  • Shachar, Ayelet (2000). "Citizenship and membership in the Israeli polity". In T. Aleinikoff & D. Klusmeyer. From Migrants to Citizens: Membership in a Changing World. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press. pp. 383–429. 
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