Tel Aviv — What kind of country are we?
That simple yet multilayered question reverberated throughout Israel this week in the wake of the decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet to require non-Jewish candidates for citizenship to pledge allegiance to the country as a Jewish state. The debate sparked by the loyalty oath had Israelis wondering out loud over the nature of the country’s identity.
But with three senior members of the prime minister’s own Likud party opposing the oath, it was hard to characterize the debate as the typical left-right contretemps of past controversies.
The bill, sponsored by Netanyahu and pushed by the Yisrael Beiteinu party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, suggests amending Israel’s citizenship law to include “a Jewish and democratic state” in a mandatory oath of loyalty to the state.
But the 22-8 cabinet vote on Sunday only highlighted the tension between Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.
Critics of the law say that administering a citizenship oath to one group of people is anti-democratic at best and xenophobic at worst. Proponents say Israel needs to reiterate its identity as a Jewish state to those who would undermine its legitimacy. (See editorial, page 6.)
Both sides agree, however, that the amendment carries a symbolic jolt that is more powerful than the practical impact it would have on would-be immigrants.
In a hard-hitting column, Haaretz writer Gideon Levy sounded a warning. “Remember this day,” he wrote. “It’s the day Israel changes its character. As a result, it can also change its name to the Jewish Republic of Israel, like the Islamic Republic of Iran. Granted, the loyalty oath bill that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking to have passed purportedly only deals with new citizens who are not Jewish, but it affects the fate of all of us.”
The result, Levy argued, will be a “new, officially approved, ethnocratic, theocratic, nationalistic and racist country. Anyone who thinks it doesn’t affect him is mistaken.”
Some of the criticism has come from Netanyahu’s own Likud faction.
Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said the new effort “is part of a series of actions which create an atmosphere of exclusion. … This is not a security matter.”
And Meridor expressed concern that the proposed law will fuel the international chorus attacking Israel’s very legitimacy.
“We are in the midst of fighting a delegitimization campaign against Israel, which is a huge danger. This fight has to be managed carefully, and this is not helping us. No other nation mandates such a thing; why give anyone another thing to use against us?” Meridor said, according to the Israeli Web site Ynet.
The law is considered to be aimed primarily at Israel’s Arab minority and family members who want citizenship. More broadly, the proposal is seen as yet another effort to defend Israel’s Jewish character at a time when the state is under pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians in peace negotiations. And it is viewed as an attempt by the prime minister to placate his right-leaning coalition if and when he decides to make concessions in the peace process with the Palestinians.
In a similar vein, a day after backing the bill, Netanyahu demanded the Palestinians formally recognize Israel’s Jewish character in return for a new settlement freeze. Not surprisingly, they rejected the demand.
Hours after the cabinet vote on Sunday, 100 people gathered outside of Israel’s Independence Hall in Tel Aviv to hear left-wing public figures read a “declaration of independence from fascism” that included a vow to renounce citizenship in a country that “violates its basic commitment to equality and civil freedom.”
“This is a moment of truth,” said Raia Yaron, a rally participant and peace activist. “Our country is in decline. The law starts against Arabs, and from there we don’t know where it will go.”
Sefi Rachlevsky, an organizer of the rally and an opinion columnist for Haaretz, asserted: “This law has nothing to do with immigration. It’s against the non-Jews who are living here. It’s trying to make them not be citizens. Remember, only two weeks ago our foreign minister said at the United Nations that he wants to take citizenship from Israeli Arabs.”
Indeed, most observers see the bill as a gesture by Netanyahu toward Lieberman, who ran for parliament promising to pass a loyalty oath for existing citizens — legislation which so far has failed to reach the parliament floor.
Tal Nahum, a spokesman for Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, said the party pushed for the current amendment to the loyalty oath. He noted that at a time Palestinians and the Arab world refused to formerly recognize Israel as a Jewish state, the loyalty oath is necessary as another statement to the world of Israel’s identity.
“It’s important that the whole world will know,” Nahum said. “It’s very important for us that the rest of the world will recognize Israel as a Jewish state as the United Nations did [in 1947]. This is what this amendment is for.
“Israel is a unique state,” he added. “We don’t distinguish between Jewish and Israeli. Our nationality and our religion are one thing.”
Miriam David, a Tel Aviv schoolteacher and Holocaust educator, said she did not agree with critics who charge the bill is discriminatory.
“I don’t think this comes from a racist place, but from a place of ‘Know where you stand.’ You have come to a Jewish and democratic country,” she said. “We are under attack. If we undermine our own right to be here, should we expect the non-Jewish to accept our rights?”
Other Israeli supporters of the law were blunt about the clash between Jewish and democratic values. “In Judaism there’s no democracy,” said a Rivka, a woman in her 60s who lives in a Tel Aviv suburb. “Whoever wants to be Jewish can be Jewish, but on our terms.”
On the other hand, the country’s one-fifth Arab minority sees the amendment to the citizenship law as new evidence that Israel’s dual identity as Jewish and democratic is an oxymoron.
Jaffar Farah, the director of the civil rights group Mossawa, called the proposed change a sign of the “dictatorship of the majority,” adding: “We see this as part of the delegitimization campaign against our existence in Israel.”
Yedidia Stern, a law professor at Bar-Ilan University and the vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said it is reasonable for Israel to require naturalized citizens to recite such a pledge because Israel’s quasi-constitutional “Basic Laws” mention the country’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state.
What is problematic, he said, is enforcing that requirement solely on non-Jews. Though Jews already receive preferential immigration treatment under the Law of Return, a loyalty oath should be administered to everyone to be equal, he said.
“In order to make it totally kosher, we need to demand the same kind of pledge of everyone. If we want people to commit to a set of values, why does it make a difference whether they are Jewish or not?”
Some see the law as aimed at the tens of thousands of migrant workers who are seeking Israeli citizenship. When asked if he would swear loyalty to a Jewish state, Oscar Olivier, a native of Congo who wants to remain in Israel, said the law is akin to segregation because it is aimed at specific population groups.
Stephan, a 35-year-old philosophy lecturer and recent immigrant from France, disagreed with allegations that the proposal is discriminatory.
“I don’t think it’s fascist,” he said.
But he said it was “stupid to do this. It doesn’t help diplomatically. It creates a negative image of Israel and gives people who don’t like Israel ammunition.”