The proposed adoption by Israel of an oath pledging loyaltyto Israel as a Jewish state as a requirement for naturalisation of non-Jews is a deeply divisive issue. Last weekend the Israeli cabinet approved a draft bill which is likely to secure the passage by a parliament dominated by right-wing parties.
Palestinian citizens of Israel condemned the measure as ‘racist’ because the law would target mainly spouses from the occupied Palestinian territories and the diaspora. Since Israel’s Palestinian citizens do not receive equal treatment with Jewish citizens, they see this legislation as yet another measure designed to relegate them to second-class status.
The Palestinian Authority has castigated the Netanyahu government for going ahead with this legislation while the two sides are still bickering over whether to resume negotiations. Palestinian officials say the measure would be an obstacle to the repatriation of Palestinian refugees if a peace deal is reached with Israel. Refugees who have been exiled from their homeland for decades by Israel could hardly be expected to agree to such an oath.
Israeli liberals contend it is doubly ‘racist’ since non-Jewish spouses of Jewish Israelis would also have to take such an oath. Jews receive citizenship on arrival in Israel. Carlos Strenger, writing in ‘Haaretz’, argues that the loyalty oath is meant to undermine Israel’s liberal values and western-style democracy. He says that the prime movers of the bill, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and Oriental Orthodox Shas party leader, Eli Yishai, and their constituents are united by “hatred for western values and the liberal ethos.
They all hate freedom; they all hate the idea of critical, open discourse, in which ideas are discussed according to their merit... Other rightists have been feeling for a long time that the commitment to universal values is undermining their programme for the greater Israel in which Palestinians should have no political rights.”
Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu (Israel is our Home) — the party drawing support from immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe — is the force behind the proposed oath. Lieberman has repeatedly called for the ‘transfer’ of Israel’s 1.3 million Palestinian citizens to a Palestinian state once it emerges.
He originally proposed a loyalty oath for all non-Jewish citizens, but this was rejected as too extreme. He, Yeshai and other rightists intend to introduce another 20 measures. Yishai seeks to revoke the citizenship of Palestinian citizens who resist Israeli occupation. Lieberman says he will table a bill requiring 16-year olds to sign a loyalty oath not only to Israel but also to Zionism when they apply for identity cards.
Such a law would deepen the alienation of young Palestinian citizens of Israel already fighting Jewish discrimination. Other right-wingers want loyalty oaths for Knesset members, non-profit organisations, and film producers; they want bans on boycotts and punishment of boycotters and a prohibition of discussion of the Naqba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1947-49.
Loyalty legislation could accelerate Israel’s descent into the kind of political repression that emerged in the US during the 1950s when Senator Joseph McCarthy held hearings on the loyalty of US citizens accused of harbouring sympathies for the Soviet Union or joining the Communist party. Another ‘Haaretz’ columnist, Gideon Levy holds that loyalty bills involve “a dangerous McCarthyist dance on the part of ignorant legislators who haven’t begun to understand what democracy is all about. It’s dangerous even if only a portion of the bills become law, because our fate and our essence will change.”
Levy castigates Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who grew up in the US, and Lieberman, who came from a totalitarian background, for failing to understand that democracy is not simply the rule of the majority but involves protection of minority rights. Levy also berates secular, leftist and mode-rate Israelis for failing to protest what is happening.
Only 100 academics and artists assembled in a Tel Aviv square to state their opposition to the measure. Several claimed that it runs counter to Israel’s declaration of independence which says that the state will “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
Educator Gavriel Solomon compared the measure to the racist laws passed by the Nazis in Germany in 1935. “There were no death camps then but there were racist laws. And we are heading towards these kinds of laws. The government is clearly declaring our incapacity for democracy.”