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Israel’s Demand for Allegiance to a “Jewish” and “Democratic” State Stirs Widespread Debate

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
December 2010

In October, the Israeli cabinet approved a draft amendment to the country’s citizenship law that calls for non-Jews seeking to become citizens to pledge loyalty to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.” Candidates for naturalization currently swear an oath of allegiance to the state, without elaboration. Many Israelis, both Arabs and Jews, said they felt the amendment was discriminatory. The amendment would not apply to Jews, who immigrate to Israel under the country’s Law of Return.  
The minister of welfare and social services, Isaac Herzog, a Labor member of the cabinet, said the amendment was one of a series of steps in recent years that “borders on fascism. Israel is on a slippery slope.”  
The Likud ministers who opposed the amendment, Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan, are supporters of equal rights. The Hebrew website Ynet quoted Meridor saying after the vote, “The law is harmful and causes damage.”  
A retired Supreme Court Justice, Abdel Rahman-Zuabi, the first Arab to serve on Israel’s highest court, told Israel Radio that if the amendment passes “then there will be two countries in the world that in my opinion are racist: Iran, which is an Islamic state, and Israel, which is the Jewish state.”  
The amendment is meant to fulfill a promise made by Prime Minister Netanyahu in his coalition agreement with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu Party. Lieberman’s last election campaign included the slogans “No citizenship without loyalty” and “Only Lieberman understands Arabs.”  
Critics both in Israel and abroad are bothered by the exclusionary implications of the new wording, which threatens to further alienate Arab citizens. “The issue is not the oath per se, but what the state demands — a pledge of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state,” says Dov Waxman, a political science professor at City University of New York. “This is controversial because many Arabs citizens of Israel believe that as long as Israel defines itself in this manner, they are deemed effectively second-class citizens. They also fear that what is now being asked of new immigrants will soon be asked of them, too. This is a very understandable concern.”  
Editorially, The Forward (Oct. 22, 2010) declared: “The Declaration of Independence approved on May 14, 1948 heralds the new nation of Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ but never defines what that actually means. There’s no mention of religion, indeed, no mention of God ... But there is an explicit description of the new state’s civic values: ‘It will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion ...’ The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is deliberately, dangerously perverting those words.”  
In The Forward’s view: “Netanyahu’s cabinet crossed a line most other Western democracies do not even approach. Insisting on this vow will ... make any non-Jew feel like a second-class citizen, violating the very equality and freedom so eloquently promised in Israel’s declaration.”  
Hagai El-Al, executive director of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), writing in The International Jerusalem Post (Oct. 15-21, 2010) states that, “Israeli democracy is failing its citizens. Pretending to advance ‘loyalty,’ MKs are in fact betraying our democracy. The ‘declaration of loyalty bill’... is just one unfortunate expression of an unprecedented current tide of antidemocratic legislation, attacking democracy at its very heart ... The new version (of the citizenship oath) crosses the line from what is commonplace in democracies to what is commonplace in countries Israel would not want to associate with. It is one thing to require adherence to the law; it is another altogether to demand that free individuals in a democracy sign on to a specific ideology or identity — and specifically one with particular religious content. ... Requiring an oath to a Jewish Israel immediately makes that very Israel less a democracy.”  
American Jewish groups which are most vocal in demanding a complete separation of church and state in the U.S. have thus far remained silent about the new oath. Ron Kampensas, writing in Washington Jewish Week (Oct. 14, 2010) notes that, “The silence reflected a reluctance to criticize Israel.” He cites groups such as the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League as remaining silent. •

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.