Some pro-Israel groups insist it’s nothing more than an Israeli version of America’s “pledge of allegiance,” but to Israeli civil rights groups the move to amend a loyalty oath for non-Jews seeking citizenship is one more big step away from the state’s democratic ideal.
And some Jewish leaders here say the debate now raging in Israel could have a devastating impact — both on Israel’s international standing and on a population of younger American Jews who are already drifting away from pro-Israel commitment.
“Whatever else this issue means, it’s not good for the fraying bond between younger Jews and Israel,” said Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the left-of-center New Israel Fund. “This bill has to be seen in the context of a number of other proposals that are floating around the Knesset by the same group of politicians.”
While putting a focus on Jewish identification in the oath, the current proposal ignores the other key component of Israel’s character — its status as a democracy, Sokatch said.
Most American Jewish groups have remained conspicuously silent as the loyalty oath issue gets thrashed out in Netanyahu’s cabinet and in the Israeli press, where opinions are divided along the usual political lines.
“Silence often speaks volumes,” said an official with a major Jewish group who was not authorized to speak on the record because his organization has decided to stay out of the fray. “But my own view is that this is a heavy-handed, wrong idea; it’s a gift to Israel’s delegitimizers.”
At the same time, this official said, “The Palestinians and the Arab world have to take some ownership; as long as you have a Palestinian Authority that can’t acknowledge the Jewish people’s right to self-determination and the right to have a homeland, you will have pressure in Israel for these kinds of measures.”
On Monday The Israel Project, a pro-Israel outreach group that generally mirrors the views of the government in Jerusalem, defended the measure, saying that “many countries, including the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom have similar pledges.”
The rights of minorities, including Israeli Arabs, are guaranteed by Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the group argued, adding that in recent years “Arabs have held some of the highest positions in Israeli society.”
The group also cited “numerous organizations [that] operate freely in Israel representing the Arab minority and frequently appeal to Israel’s justice system when it is felt rights have been infringed. Israeli Arabs have opportunities not afforded to citizens in many Arab countries. Women enjoy equal rights in Israel as do homosexuals.”
But critics here and in Israel say no other democracies demand a pledge of loyalty to a specific ethnic or religious vision of the country.
“Imagine the outcry if this country required a ‘pledge of allegiance’ to America as a ‘Christian nation,” said a longtime pro-Israel activist here who asked not to be identified.
Israel was, in fact, explicitly created as a “Jewish state,” while the idea of America as a “Christian nation” is a widely challenged tenet of some religious groups and not part of any of the nation’s founding documents, this activist conceded, but added that “demanding this kind of oath reinforces a sense that Israeli Arabs and other non-Jews will be seen as second-class citizens, both within Israel and around the world. Whether or not that’s fair, that’s the perception.”
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the move to modify the oath will provide new fuel for anti-Israel forces around the world.
“The heart of the matter is that it’s a bad proposal that’s not going to accomplish what its authors hope; in fact, it will have a negative impact, internally,” he said. “And outside Israel, the immediate result is that those who have been working to delegitimize Israel will exploit it; this strengthens the hand of Israel’s enemies around the world.”
Rabbi Yoffie, representing the largest religious segment of American Jewry and the most liberal, said, “It’s a complicated issue. While I do not believe North American Jews will be comfortable with this proposal, exactly how it plays out is not clear.”
But taken together with the growing power of the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel and recurring measures aimed at changing conversion laws, the proposal suggests Israel is moving in a direction not favored by a strong majority of American Jews, he said.
“It’s important to understand this is not being put forward by people in Israel who are out to promote harmony,” he said. “They have been pretty up front; this is intended to an extent to anger and incite the Arabs. The intentions behind this are deeply troubling to us. And it is being pushed by the same people who have been pushing for changes in the conversion laws — who think of Judaism as only Orthodox Judaism.”
The Anti-Defamation League took a different tack; in a statement on Monday, ADL National Director Abraham Foxman called on the government to “adopt further modifications to the proposed amendment to the citizenship law so it will apply to all immigrants to Israel, including those entering under the law of return. Many countries around the world, including the United States, require new citizens to take such oaths of allegiance to their new country.”
If Israel does modify current requirements, it should be clear it applies to all those seeking citizenship, not just non-Jewish immigrants, he argued.
By and large, however, few Jewish organizations other than solidly left-wing ones were willing to say anything on the record about the loyalty oath. Most major centrist groups, including those that lean toward liberal, even refused to comment off the record.
“The timing is not right,” one official said, referring to the diplomatic impasse in the Middle East.
Others simply declared that they were not prepared to deal with the issue.
But American Jewish groups that emphasize civil liberties in the Jewish state will continue to fight the proposal and the many others like it, said NIF’s Daniel Sokatch.
“Those of us who defend and promote a vision of Israel as both a Jewish and a democratic state — which is the vision that resonates with most American Jews — are left reeling by this kind of development,” he said.
JTA contributed to this report.