Israel's loyalty oath time bomb
10/11/2010 - 08:46
James Besser

Have you noticed the eerie silence of major Jewish and pro-Israel groups on the issue of the loyalty oath for new citizens approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet?

Best I can tell, the only group that's weighed in is J Street. But behind that wall of silence I'm guessing there's a lot of anxiety about how the ongoing controversy will affect American Jewish commitment to the Jewish state – and the commitment of one group in particular.

Yes, I know there already  is a loyalty oath for non-Jewish applicants for Israeli citizenship, and this change just adds the words “as a Jewish, democratic state.”

I've heard the argument from the right that the oath is somehow necessary to preserve Israel's Jewish character, but I'm also pretty sure mainstream Jewish leaders here are quietly worried that the measure is part of a trend that will undercut one of their strongest arguments in the battle for American public opinion – that Israel is a real democracy in a region where democracy is an alien concept.

Israel is just like us, the refrain goes: democratic with a small “d,” devoted to civil liberties, respectful of minorities – goals America honors in theory, if not always in practice.

The current loyalty oath debate is part of a trend that will make that argument much harder to make.

Ha'aretz columnist Gideon Levy, citing at least 20 other “anti-democratic” pieces of legislation awaiting Knesset action, wrote this over the weekend: “Remember this day. 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.”

Even in today's America, where we have swallowed so many previously unimaginable things in the name of “security” over the past nine years, from torture to airport granny pat downs, I suspect that will be one more blow to Israel's image as a democratic bastion. In the Jewish community, it will be another source of disillusionment for progressive Jews who care about Israel - but also care about civil liberties.

But I suspect the real issue is this: the trend is another big landmine in the effort to keep younger American Jews from drifting away from commitment – especially since it seems driven by crude politics, not security.

No doubt when pressed the major pro-Israel groups will go through rhetorical acrobatics to show how this isn't so bad, how it isn't so different from what other countries do.

But here's a helpful hint: it isn't going to help with the demographic Jewish leaders fret about the most. It's not going to burnish Israel's reputation with a generation of Jews whose ties to the Jewish state are already waning.

It will also almost certainly widen the gap between the American Jewish faction that accepts and supports every decision made in Jerusalem – and many others, especially in the younger age range,  who wouldn't do that with their own government, so why do it with Israel's?

The one group I did hear from is the embattled J Street, which issued a strong denunciation of the measure.

“We are unaware of another democracy in the world that requires an oath of loyalty to the religious identity of the state,” J Street president and founder Jeremy Ben-Ami wrote. “Certainly none discriminates in this manner in the conditions for citizenship on the basis of religion.”

That's the point, it seems to me, that will stick in the craw of a lot of younger Jews who don't buy the “everything Israel does is right” line and who don't measure Israel by the emotional standards of their parents.

In the global scheme of things, I don't know how bad the loyalty oath and other measures before Knesset really are. I'm not an Israeli, so I don't know what it's like to live with constant insecurity; I'm not an Israeli Arab, so I don't know what it's like to be constantly reminded I am a second-class citizen.

I honestly don't know how Israel can reconcile its claim to being both a Jewish and a democratic state given current demographic and strategic realities.

All I can address is the potential impact in this country, where the trend may further dull Israel's public image – and accelerate the drift from commitment of a significant portion of younger American Jews.

Over at the Atlantic, blogger Jeff Goldberg writes that “the bill was pushed through by Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister, who is doing everything in his power to alienate Israel's friends, and to make Israel appear to be a country run by idiots. Even the Knesset speaker, Reuven Rivlin, a Likudnik, sees in the idea an element of self-destruction.”

But then he talks about the “larger, and looming question...whether the Palestinian Authority should be required, as a condition for Israeli acquiescence to a peace deal, to publicly acknowledge that Israel is the state of the Jewish people. I'm agnostic on this question; on the one hand, it seems to be an unnecessary and provocative demand; on the other hand, the Palestinians, and their supporters across the Muslim world, have refused all along to acknowledge the obvious Jewish ties to the Land of Israel.”



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Mr. Besser, I think that this post reflects a misunderstanding as to the implications and intentions of the change in wording to the naturalization pledge. However, the fact that an informed American Jew such as yourself has misconstrued the issue portends badly, indeed, as to how the issue is more widely perceived. Therefore, it is important to clarify the position. First, the term "Jewish" is always one lacking clear definition, but in the sense that Israel defines itself as a Jewish State, the meaning is primarily ethnic, not religious, though, the Jewish ethnicity is intertwined with its religious customs. The "democratic" phrase refers to the nature of governance in the Jewish State, namely political and social equality regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender, ensuring freedom of expression, religion, culture and education for all its citizens. So if Israel is a democractic country for individuals, what right is constricted by its being a "Jewish" country? Sovereignty rights. This is an important distinction between America and Canada, and all other democracies. Most democracies are ethnocentric societies which have enfranchised minorities and granted them rights. This was the case for Jews in Western European democracies in the 1800s. While individual rights are granted, the country is still seen as belonging to the sovereign nation, or its representative monarch - as well, by the way, as that monarch's religion. America is different in that it was founded as a constitutional country, where the constitution was sovereign. Israel is more like a European democracy, and does not want to be like an American democracy, and whether both models can be called "democratic" is what is up for debate. I wouldn't care if Israel ceases to be called a democracy, provided it does not abdicate the robust array of political and social rights granted to it citizenry. However, "democracy" is the short hand we give to states that have an elected government, free press, freedom of religion, expression, association etc. I feel that even were the security situation in Israel completely stable, we would not want Israel to be defined as "A state of whoever shows up." and I cannot understand the rationale behind those who claim to want Israel to exist, but not vigorously defend it s existence ans the ethnic homeland of the Jewish People. Danny Hershtal Yisrael Beytenu English Speakers
James Besser's agnosticism may go to the heart of the issue. If Israel can not make peace with its neighbors with their accepting Israel as a Jewish state, it is merely a slippery slope to a one-state solution, which is truly the death knell of the Jewish state. As for American Jews, it may be a knee-jerk reaction to our secularism and our constitutionalism, with notions of separation of Church and State. One might be surprised as to the number of liberal democracies that have a state church. Israel feels that it is undersiege. As a Jewish state, it is being deligitmized in the court of world opinion. The oath is just another wall to protect itself. It doesn't "change" Israel. It will act according to the norms invested in its Declaration of Independence.