Israel passes law on loyalty oath

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LISA MULLINS: The seemingly intractable Middle East conundrum continues. Today, Israel's prime minister offered to renew a partial freeze on building settlements. But only if Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinian officials rejected the offer out of hand. This move follows the approval of a controversial new law in Israel. It would require that prospective Israeli citizens who are not Jewish take an oath of loyalty to the Jewish state. The World's Matthew Bell reports from Jerusalem.

MATTHEW BELL: The new law is expected to pass in Israel's Knesset. It would require that anyone who's not Jewish and wants to become a naturalized citizen of Israel, take a pledge of loyalty to a quote �Jewish and democratic state.� The law is creating a lot of waves. Though in reality, it wouldn't be likely to affect many people directly.

RONI SHOCKEN: The only meaning is to tell the Arab minority, you are a second class citizens here.

BELL: That's Roni Shocken of the Abraham Fund, a non-governmental organization that works with Israeli Arab communities. The largest group affected by the new law would be Palestinians seeking Israeli citizenship after marrying an Arab Israeli citizen. But because of an existing law passed during the violence of the second intifada, Israel has been prohibiting almost all Palestinians from becoming new citizens for most of the past decade. That's why Shocken says this mandatory oath has no practical meaning.

SHOCKEN: It is meaningless because no one knows what a democratic and Jewish country is. There is a debate here in Israel within the Jewish population, what a Jewish state is, what it means. Is it a state with a Jewish majority? Is it a state with Jewish tradition or religion or legal system?

BELL: Shocken and other critics worry the loyalty oath is the beginning of a legal shift in the way Israel treats its non-Jewish citizens, who make up about 20% of the population.

MARK REGEV: This in no way affects existing Israeli citizens.

BELL: Mark Regev is the spokesman at the Israeli prime minister's office.

REGEV: To be fair, the prime minister said today of course, Israel's Arabs are non-Jewish citizens as individuals, as a community, will continue to enjoy full civil and legal equality in the framework of Israeli democracy. That's not an issue for debate.

BELL: The Israeli political party that pushed for a loyalty oath is called Israel Beitenu, which means �Israel, Our Home.� It campaigned on the slogan, �No Loyalty, No Citizenship.� Now, it's part of the governing coalition in Israel. And the party has advocated for a whole host of so-called new �loyalty� laws. Those positions have led to charges of racism. Danny Hershtal is a spokesman for Israel Beitenu.

DANNY HERSHTAL: We don't require anyone to take on any aspects of Judaism or of Jewish ethnicity or Jewish culture. However, unlike the United States of America, which was created as a country for all its citizens, the purpose of Israel was to create a Jewish state because the land of Israel originally was the ethnic home of the Jewish people and as you know we weren't treated so well outside of it.

BELL: Advocates of the loyalty oath say it's also about Israel seeking recognition from its Arab neighbors as the national homeland of the Jewish people. Critics say the Israeli loyalty oath law goes too far, by denying the history and right to self-determination of the Palestinians. For The World, I'm Matthew Bell in Jerusalem.