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Israel’s Sex Assault Law Isn’t About Protecting Women. It’s About Racial Purity.

It’s telling that sexual assaults by Arabs on Jews will face harsher sentences if deemed “nationalistically motivated.”

A woman, flanked by protesters behind her carrying the Israeli flag, holds a sign reading "THE WORLD IS WATCHING" during an outdoor demonstration in Tel Aviv, Israel, on July 22, 2023.

On July 30, the Israeli Knesset passed a sexual assault law showing, as Israel’s sole liberal newspaper put it, that the “processes of fascism are in full swing.”

The law doubles the penalty for sexual assault offenses that were “nationalistically motivated,” however defined. In other words, sexual attacks by Arabs against Jews will face harsher sentences if prosecutors can prove the assailant was motivated by national or racial bias.

Its sponsors were Knesset members from the far right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) and the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu parties; the latter is officially part of the opposition — demonstrating that in Israel, anti-Arab sentiment is a unifying force despite otherwise fierce internecine feuds. Most of the opposition didn’t even bother to show up and vote against the legislation. It passed 39-7.

Akin to other discriminatory Israeli laws, the law doesn’t explicitly mention race or ethnicity, but its intent is clear. To maintain the pretense that Israel isn’t a racist state, such laws are sometimes vaguely worded, but their structure or prosecutorial discretion ensures discriminatory outcomes: It’s very unlikely the law will be applied to sexual assaults by Jewish men against Arab women, as the legislation does not come in reaction to any spike in Arab-on-Jewish sexual violence, which remains less common than interracial sexual violence. When opposition Knesset members asked for data on nationalistically motivated sex crimes from the Israeli police and Ministry of Defense, they came up empty.

Instead, the legislation’s authors have made their intentions clear. Yulia Malinovsky, a Knesset member representing the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, has long railed against the alleged “sexual terrorism by Arab men against Jewish women” and her counterpart, Limor Son Har-Melech of the Jewish Power Party, stated in a committee hearing that the law’s purpose is to protect the honor of Jewish women from Arab men. Moreover, the legal term “nationalistic motivations” is mainly deployed in terrorism cases, and almost exclusively applied to Arab citizens. By reframing sexual assaults as nationalist violence, the law permits prosecution for such crimes under the state’s terrorism laws.

The legislation was opposed by numerous survivors’ rights organizations, who pointed out the absurdity of prosecuting cases depending on race. “Does an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man who rapes a 12-year-old girl cause less hurt or damage than a Palestinian Arab man who rapes a 12-year-old girl?” the Israeli Haredi feminist organization Nivcharot wrote in a brief submitted to the Knesset.

The new law will do nothing to help survivors of assault. Instead, it makes them complicit in racist prosecution.

The legislation also comes on the heels of another discriminatory sentencing law that would permit the revocation of citizenship for Arabs convicted of terrorism. “An Arab who commits an offense is a conditional citizen,” Palestinian Knesset Member Ahmed Tibi said as the final vote proceeded. “If a Jew commits the same offense or a more serious one, they don’t even think of revoking his citizenship.” That bill passed 94-10, with only Arab Knesset members voting against it. The recent glut of blatantly discriminatory laws, and the possibility that they may be struck down by the High Court, illustrates the stakes involved in the ongoing conflict over judicial oversight. The Israeli right-wing seeks to undermine the court’s authority, in part, to prevent judges from overturning overtly racist laws.

The Arab “Miscegenation Threat”

Israel’s racist policing of Palestinian bodies is increasingly focused on the supposed “threat” that Arab men pose to Jewish women. A recurring feature of colonial regimes is the portrayal of Native men as sexual beasts who must be patrolled, or else they may violate the nation’s purity, as symbolized by the chaste white woman.

For example, in the colonial and segregated U.S., no act offended white southerners more than an alleged rape or sexual conduct between a Black man and a white woman. The white bloodline was to be “protected” against the Black man. As such, intermarriage was banned in most U.S. states until the Supreme Court’s 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision. Whether relationships were consensual or not was irrelevant to racists, who lynched Black men to reinforce strict boundaries between Black and white bodies. Nazi Germany outlawed sexual relations between gentiles and Jews, and Germans accused of sleeping with Jews were paraded around neighborhoods as traitors to their race.

Israel’s new sexual assault law is similarly aminated by the growing far-right chorus obsessed with potential dating and intermarriage between Arabs and Jews, especially between Arab men and Jewish women. The fact that Arab-Jewish relationships are rare hasn’t stopped Israel’s far-right from pushing the issue.

In 2015, then-Education Minister Naftali Bennet banned a book depicting an Arab-Jewish love affair from Israeli high schools because, in his words, the book “threatens Jewish identity” and encouraged “miscegenation.” In 2014, members of Lehava, a Jewish supremacist group inspired by the ideology of the late Meir Kahane, who advocated ethnic cleansing against Arabs, protested the marriage of a Muslim citizen to a Jewish woman who converted to Islam. Standing outside the couple’s banquet hall, they chanted “Arabs beware, my sister is not fair game,” and “No existence with Arabs.”

Lehava’s founder has called for torching churches, and its members have been convicted of torching an Arab-Jewish school. Back in the 1980s, Kahane had been a lone soldier whose speeches were boycotted by the entire Knesset, today his descendants serve in the ruling coalition and as cabinet ministers, including in charge of the national police force and Israeli rule over the occupied West Bank.

The particular obsession with Arab-Jewish relationships is part of a broader fixation with intermarriage among Jews. Israeli officials from President Isaac Herzog, who called it a “plague” before walking back his words, to Minister Rafi Peretz, who compared it to a “second holocaust,” have repeatedly decried intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews.

For a nation obsessed with the demographic balance between Arabs and Jews, every Jewish wedding to a non-Jew is treated as akin to a “national security threat.” It’s no wonder that the Israeli high court, in upholding a 2011 decision that restricted the right of Palestinian citizens to wed and confer citizenship on spouses from the occupied Palestinian territories, ruled that such an allowance would be “a prescription for national suicide.” It’s also noteworthy that Israel does not permit civil marriages, which require Jewish and non-Jewish marriages to be performed overseas.

It’s in this context of colonial obsession with maintaining segregation between races that Israel passed its recent sexual assault law. Policing the bodies of Jewish women and Arab men, and positing the two as antithetical, echoes past systems of colonialism and apartheid, and this latest legislation portends even more racist laws in store for Palestinians.

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