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An Orthodox Jewish worshiper prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, ahead of Yom Kippur in Jerusalem's Old City October 7, 2011 (Reuters).

In the last months, thousands of protesters have been rallying throughout Israel, calling for social justice and protesting the high cost of living, the inequitable tax burden, and the monopoly of tycoons and cartels over the economy. Real change, however, will not take place as long as protesters ignore the urgent need for improving civil rights in the country.

[Israel] is heading down the precarious path from a democracy to a sectarian state.

I am a Moroccan-Italian of Arab origin, married to an Israeli Jew and living in Israel. Our two-year-old baby girl, born in Jerusalem, is an Israeli citizen, albeit not Jewish (under Halachic law, a child is considered Jewish only if his mother is Jewish).

The country’s demography is shifting, with a growing percentage of citizens who are neither Jewish nor indigenous Arabs. The massive Russian immigration has brought many Christians to the country, and, for Israelis – as for other nationalities – romantic ties are sometimes impervious to national borders and religious boundaries. Unfortunately, the Israeli government tries to thwart this natural social development, because it is being blackmailed by the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community (haredim), on whose vote the coalition hinges.

The ultra-Orthodox chokehold precludes the introduction of civil marriage in Israel, thus preventing so-called “mixed” marriages. Couples circumvent this obstacle by marrying abroad, an arrangement that is recognized by the state. My husband and I got married in Cyprus, but it was an entire year before the State of Israel would recognize our marriage certificate. During this period, my husband’s civil status was “under investigation,” as his ID card proclaimed.

Anna's daughter

The author's daughter

The most humiliating thing, however, was the refusal of the Israeli Ministry of the Interior to recognize our baby girl as an Israeli citizen. In the birth certificate I was given at the hospital, my daughter appeared with my family name, and the spaces provided for “father’s name” and “nationality” were left blank. In order for my husband to give our baby his name, the Ministry of the Interior demanded the ultimate proof: a DNA test to prove his paternity (at the cost $1,000 plus another $1,500 in lawyers’ fees to represent us in Family Court).

While my daughter has now been granted the status of Israeli citizen and carries her father’s family name, her birth certificate still takes pains to stress that she is not Jewish and not part of the Jewish nation. When my husband, a retired high-ranking officer in the Israeli Army, complained about this Kafkaesque rigmarole, he was informed by a senior clerk at the Interior Ministry that he should be ashamed of himself for bringing “foreigners” into the country.

This, in fact, reflects an undercurrent pervasive in Israeli society. All non-Jews are perceived by the state as interlopers, even though many of them pay taxes and serve in the army – which is more than can be said for most members of the ultra-Orthodox community. Their outsider status is never more poignant than when a non-Jewish Israeli dies in combat and is buried outside cemetery walls.

The call for social justice, while very welcome, does not go far enough. If the protesters truly want reform in Israel, they must first demand that Israel should be a state for all Israelis. Many would argue that Israel must stringently safeguard its Jewish character in order to avoid compromising its security. In my view, however, the opposite is true: in the long run, these policies will only lead to many Israeli citizens feeling alienated from their country, which is heading down the precarious path from a democracy to a sectarian state. The issues of social and economic justice are not separate from that of civil rights, which are the cornerstone of any democratic society. Ultimately, only by ensuring civil rights for all Israelis can social justice be ensured.

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Anna Mahjar-Barducci

Anna Mahjar-Barducci is a Moroccan-Italian researcher and author, based in Jerusalem. She was raised in Africa between Zimbabwe and Senegal and studied in Tunisia, Pakistan and Europe. She worked for European and Middle Eastern media. Her opinion pieces have been published in Corriere della Sera (Italy), Al-Arabiya (UAE), Haaretz (Israel), Daily Star (Lebanon) and she has appeared as a guest analyst also in African media. She has published several books including "Italo-Marocchina" (Italy, 2009) and "Pakistan Express" (Italy, 2011).

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