On the agenda: Tests of Loyalties: Racism or Patriotism

"It is unacceptable that in order to identify the non-Jews, the Arabs, they are going to identify me as a Jew," says MK Daniel Ben-Simon in an interview.

October 31, 2010 09:52
On the agenda: Tests of Loyalties: Racism or Patriotism

knesset plenum. (photo credit: Channel 99)

IN EARLY OCTOBER, THE CABINET PASSED, BY A vote of 22-8, an amendment to the citizenship law, which would change the requirement for naturalization from a simple declaration of loyalty to Israel to a declaration of loyalty to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.”

As proposed, the amendment does not apply to people obtaining citizenship under the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to Jews or people with Jewish fathers or grandfathers. That is, only people who are not Jewish and have no ethnic connection to Judaism will be required to take the vow of loyalty.

The proposed loyalty oath, which is part of the government’s coalition agreement with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, will now advance to the Knesset’s legislative committee and then to the full Knesset. The timetable for passage of the law is still unclear.

On October 16, thousands marched in Tel Aviv against the proposed amendment under the banner “Together Against Racism: Arab and Jewish March for Democracy.”

The Jerusalem Report spoke with two members of Knesset – MK Daniel Ben-Simon, who is opposed to the proposed amendment, and MK Danny Danon, who is in favor.

Daniel Ben-Simon, 56, is a first-time member of Knesset representing the Labor Party. A well-regarded journalist, whose reporting focused on social justice and equality, Ben-Simon has also written several books and, in 2004, was awarded the Sokolov Prize for Journalism, the country’s most prestigious journalistic award. Ben-Simon left journalism for a career in politics in 2008 and was elected to the Knesset in 2009.

As a rookie MK, Ben-Simon supported Labor’s decision to enter the government headed by Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but, after only eight months, he resigned his position as Labor’s whip. He remains in the Knesset but believes that Labor should leave the government and opposes most of the policies promoted by Labor party head, Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

The Jerusalem Report: You have made it very clear that you oppose this amendment. Why?

MK Daniel Ben-Simon: I lived in Morocco as a Jew until I was 16 years old. I lived as a member of a Jewish minority in a country with a Muslim majority; I studied and worked and communicated in French, yet my identity was fully Jewish. At some point, I decided to make a fundamental change to my life: I made aliya to Israel and I became an Israeli.

I am an Israeli. Wherever I go, I am an Israeli. But this amendment to the citizenship law wants to send me back to Casablanca. This law would undo all of the years of the Zionist revolution.

We have come here, to Israel, under the Law of Return – so why do they want me to walk around with a yellow star in my own country?? Why do I need this?

In France, there are 700,000 Jews. But since France cannot tolerate two identities, the Jews must hide their Jewish symbol, a Magen David, under their shirts; in their homes, they can be Jews, they take the Magen David out from under their shirts and wear their kippot.

But I have lived here most of my life. My children were born here and have served in the Israel Defense Forces. I am a representative of my people in the Knesset. Why does anyone think that I must have some outside sign, a declaration of allegiance, to call myself a Jew?

But the amendment is intended only for non-Jews.

So now we see the real motivation behind this – it is to distinguish between Jews and Arabs. It is unacceptable that in order to identify the non-Jews, the Arabs, they are going to identify me as a Jew.

This is a wicked law whose only purpose is to create divisions among Israelis. Whoever lives here is an Israeli, and these divisions are dangerous. First, they will single out the Arabs, then the Christians, and finally anyone who has a different opinion.

Does this mean that you do not believe that Israel is a Jewish State?

This is a Jewish state because the Jewish people founded this country and live here, because we are a majority, because we live here proudly. But anyone who lives in Israel and is a citizen is entitled to feel Israeli and receive all of the benefits accorded to all Israelis.

In Israel, our Judaism is not a problem for us – it is clear, unambiguous and self-evident. We don’t have to defend or plan our Judaism all the time. If this amendment passes, Theodore Herzl, the founder of the State of Israel, should feel that he was duped. This was not the meaning of the establishment of the State of Israel.

Other states demand loyalty oaths, so why shouldn’t Israel do the same?

The “Jewishness” of the State of Israel is politically contested and has different meanings for different people. There is an ongoing debate in Israel regarding the character of the state and this amendment is an attempt to impose a legal resolution to a political argument. And that can only lead to very negative things.

This amendment was born in sin, birthed by a semi-fascist party [Yisrael Beiteinu] headed by a man [Avigdor Lieberman] who lived most of his life in a semi-fascist state. They are toying with our Jewish identity in order to single out the Arabs and force them to love us.

Until the 1970s, the majority of Arabs in Israel actually voted for Jewish political parties. If we would offer them true equality as Israelis, they would accept the state. Declarations won’t make them love us.

The cabinet ministers from Labor voted against the proposed amendment, yet remain part of Netanyahu’s government. Why?

They remain in the government because they are a bunch of cowards, who, for opportunistic reasons, are willing to launder any and every sin and crime committed by this government. They should have resigned. For as long as I am in the Knesset, I am bound by the Knesset regulations to be part of this party. And I am angry and ashamed.

Danny Danon
, 39, chairman of the World Likud organization and a member of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors, was first elected to the Knesset, representing the Likud Party, in 2009. He serves as the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and as chairman of the Committee on the Rights of the Child and a subcommittee of the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee. He is also a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the Constitution Law and Justice Committee, the Committee on the Status of Women and the Finance Committee, among others.

Before his election to the Knesset, Danon was one of the most vociferous activists against prime minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza plan; since then, he has continued to organize demonstrations and activities against what he refers to as “ceding land to Israel’s Arab enemies” and is the chairman of the Knesset Caucus for the Promotion of Zionist Values.

The Jerusalem Report: You have made it very clear that you support this amendment. Why?

MK Danny Danon: The proposed amendment is a symbolic act, yet it is very important. Its purpose is to send a clear message to the Israeli Arabs, telling them that the majority of Israeli citizens are sick and tired of their extremist and disloyal behavior. We are tired of Hanin Zoabi [MK from the Hadash party who participated in the flotilla to the Gaza Strip in May] and those like her. This amendment is a sort of “yellow card,” which we are putting out in the name of the Jewish majority. We are telling the Arabs who live here that if they persist in their behavior, we will have to take actions against them, such as imposing national service on all of them and other demands that they show respect for and abide by the principles of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Is this why the change is intended for non- Jewish citizens only?

Nothing terrible would happen if the law were to be applied to everyone who obtains Israeli citizenship, including ultra-Orthodox, and I have already spoken to the prime minister about this. I think that everyone who is a citizen of this state should have to declare that he or she is loyal to the state and future versions of the amendment will be applied to everyone.

After all, the current situation is absurd. It is harder for a teen to get a drivers’ license here than it is to get an ID card.

But there is no problem with the loyalty of most Jews and that is why the amendment is aimed primarily at Arabs. We are sending them a message.

The Arabs are aware of this. Look at how loudly they are protesting against the law, which will actually affect only a few thousand people at most. But they know what the intention of the law is, and they are afraid because they know that the majority in this country will not tolerate their behavior any longer.

The concept of a “Jewish state” is contested even among Jews. When taking a vow of loyalty to “the Jewish state,” there is little agreement as to what exactly that means.

There are disagreements, but I think that we basically do agree on broad principles. We all know that we are referring to Jewish as it is intended in the Law of Return, and, as to specifics, every person can interpret “Jewish” as he or she sees fit. If we had said “Jewish according to halakha” that would be a different story.

Every Jew should be proud to declare loyalty to the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Do you believe that you can force the Arab citizens to be loyal to the state through legislation?

No, of course not. I am not deluding myself: this is merely a symbolic gesture. It won’t guarantee loyalty. But it will make the point.

Opponents of the bill have criticized it as motivated by coalition politics and as coming at a particularly bad time, due to the sensitivity of the peace process and other issues.

There is never a good time for Jewish topics or for settling the land of Israel, as far as the world is concerned. It is like building in Jerusalem: There is never a good time to build in Jerusalem, and so every time is a good time.

In mid-October, thousands demonstrated against the proposed amendment.

Of course, everyone is entitled to demonstrate in a democratic state and to express his or her beliefs. But I do wonder: Why don’t these demonstrators ever take to the streets when they see how the Arabs are behaving? The demonstrators are entitled to their opinions, but they are wrong. The majority of the public is sick and tired of being abused by the Arabs, who are supporting Israel’s worst enemies, including Hamas and Iran.

Are you concerned about world opinion and Israel’s image in the world?

Of course, I am very concerned. But if we compare this law with the demands in other countries when someone becomes a resident – such as language proficiency and social studies – then we will realize that this is a very reasonable law, especially in the context that we are facing.

We are telling the world who we are. We are a Jewish and democratic state, and we have nothing to apologize for.

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