JERUSALEM — When referring to Israel, journalists often call it “the Jewish State.” The Arab media typically avoids use of the name “Israel,” preferring “the Zionist Entity.” Now Israel’s government is catching up.
The Israeli cabinet approved a measure last week that would require citizens to swear an oath of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state, as part of their naturalization process. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also been pushing the idea that Palestinian negotiators ought to recognize Israel as a State of the Jews.
Both measures are controversial — even among Israeli Jews. Critics see the loyalty oath as a measure by its right-wing progenitors in the Israel Our Home Party to delegitimize the 20 percent of Israelis who are Arabs. Meanwhile, Palestinian leaders see Netanyahu’s negotiating gambit as a delaying tactic and a way of forestalling demands for the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees.
The vote in Israel’s cabinet on the loyalty oath wasn’t unanimous. Labor Party minister Yitzhak Herzog spoke out about “traces of fascism” in recent Israeli politics. Two notable ministers from Netanyahu’s Likud Party voted against the oath.
“There aren’t millions of immigrants beating down our door,” said Dan Meridor, one of the Likud dissenters. “I see no good in this, only harm. This isn’t the Israel we know.”
Meridor argues that the controversy over the loyalty oath makes Israel look bad at a time when the country is fighting “a delegitimization campaign” against it around the world.
Political representatives of the Arab minority in Israel go further in their critique. Since 1984, Israel’s “Basic Law” has defined the country as a “Jewish and democratic state.” Ahmed Tibi, a former adviser to Yasser Arafat who sits in the Israeli Knesset, said “Jewish comes before democratic, and that’s no coincidence.”
“Israel is indeed Jewish and democratic,” Tibi said. “Democratic to the Jews, and Jewish to the Arabs.”
In its own near-the-knuckle way, Israel may be confronting issues similar to those sweeping Europe, leading governments to regulate the customs of its Muslim minorities in an effort to protect itself from perceived threats to national character. Anti-immigrant parties, in fact, have recently been elected in Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands. It also has come to the fore in Germany with a recent debate over the lack of integration of its large Turkish minority. In each of these countries, values held dear to long-time residents appear to be on collision course with Islamic ways of life perceived as illiberal.
Of course, Arab citizens of Israel argue that they never immigrated to Israel — rather Israel appeared all around them 62 years ago — and they ought not to be circumscribed by its desire to define itself as Jewish. The new oath wouldn’t be required of existing residents, but if an Arab from Nazareth married a Palestinian from Jordan the new spouse would have to declare his or her loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state in order to reside here.
“A nation is under no obligation to volunteer to accept those who object to its fundamental goals,” said Ruth Gavison, an emeritus law professor at the Israel Democracy Institute. “A nation can condition citizenship.”
Gavison adds, however, that some of the comments by Israeli proponents of the loyalty oath suggest that discrimination — rather than protection of basic values — lies behind the new measure.
A demonstration against the loyalty oath in Tel Aviv this week accused the government of swinging toward a “fascist” agenda. Speakers argued that the requirement placed tribal or ethnic loyalty above democracy.
“Israel is becoming fascist and racist,” said writer Sefi Rachlevsky, one of the organizers of the demonstration. “Veering away from the democratic camp is isolating us from the West.”
The loyalty oath controversy comes at the same time as Prime Minister Netanyahu has once more floated his demand for the Palestinians to accept Israel as a “State of the Jews.”
Palestinian leaders reject this because it would appear to preclude future negotiations about the rights of the Palestinians defined as refugees — which includes not only those who fled the creation of Israel in 1948, but their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Officially the Palestinians still insist those people be allowed to return to what’s now Israel.
For most commentators, Netanyahu’s demand has been seen as a delaying tactic intended to draw attention from his political problems — in particular whether he will extend his previous freeze on construction in Israel’s West Bank settlements in order to keep peace talks going.
However, a columnist in Israel’s liberal Ha’aretz newspaper Friday listed seven reasons for the validity of Netanyahu’s demand that Israel be recognized as a Jewish State.
In particular, Ari Shavit cited the issue which, in many ways, ties the issue together with the loyalty oath: “First reason: that is why we came here. The supreme goal of Zionism is that in the Land of Israel the people of Israel will have a national home … Those who don’t believe in the right of the Jewish people to a national home are racists.”