Last week’s cabinet decision to require non-Jews seeking Israeli citizenship via
naturalization to take an oath of loyalty to a “Jewish and democratic” state has
aroused a great deal of controversy. In response to some constructive criticism,
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has now called to amend the law so that those
eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return would also have to take
Netanyahu’s move was designed in part to reassure those
ineligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, particularly Arabs,
that they will not be expected to take on any extraordinary burdens of
In truth, it is unclear what precisely is so burdensome about
acknowledging a principle already anchored in the Balfour Declaration, the UN
partition plan, Israel’s Declaration of Independence, as well as the 1992 Basic
Law: Human Freedom and Dignity and Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation.
Nevertheless, it is only fair that all who request Israeli citizenship, whether
eligible under the Law of Return or not, be obligated to undergo an identical
Some critics, such as MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List
– Ta’al), have said that demanding an oath of loyalty to a Jewish and democratic
state is not only burdensome but is also downright racist. Thousands gathered on
Saturday in Tel Aviv with a similar sentiment, and chanted “no to fascism, yes
Adopting such an extreme position prevents constructive
THERE IS no inherent contradiction between the terms “Jewish”
and “democratic.” Israel’s “Jewishness” is by virtue of the fact that the
majority of people living here are Jews who share a common religion, culture,
history and national identity, including nearly two millennia of Jewish yearning
to return to their land. They also share the lesson of the Holocaust, the tragic
consequence, in part, of Jews’ lack of sovereignty.
Like other peoples,
including the Palestinians, Jews have the right to self-determination in their
own sovereign state, where they can formulate their own policies, produce their
own unique culture and protect themselves.
But Israel is also democratic
in the sense that minorities’ rights, such as freedom of speech and press,
freedom of religion and even the right to political representation in the
Knesset, are carefully protected.
Admittedly, more must be done to
provide Arab Israelis with equal opportunities and access to state resources.
Doing so would strengthen, not detract from, Israel’s Jewish character. Pursuing
peaceful relations with non-Jews is a central Jewish value.
PERTINENT criticism of the loyalty oath bill has focused on its timing and the
way it has been presented.
The proposal comes against the backdrop of
legislation such as the Nakba Law, which denies state funding to organizations
that mark Israel’s Independence Day as a nakba (catastrophe) and a failed bill
by Yisrael Beitenu that would have forced every citizen of Israel to take an
oath of loyalty and perform military or national service.
Though it is an
amendment to immigration policy, the loyalty oath is perceived by many in the
Arab Israeli population as an attempt, as Hebrew University law professor Ruth
Gavison put it, “to exclude all Arabs from symbolic membership in Israeli’s
Nonetheless, as Gavison also pointed out, avoiding
the use of the term “Jewish and democratic” when it is relevant, such as when an
individual applies for Israeli citizenship, might create the false impression
that the State of Israel’s leaders do not view these fundamental characteristics
What is plainly mandated here, as the presumably protracted
process of legislating the oath plays out, is an intensified dialogue with Arab
Israeli leaders, to endeavor – through both words and deeds – to assure the Arab
population that a Jewish and democratic state will protect their individual
Arab Israelis, meanwhile, should be encouraged to make more
efforts to integrate into Israeli society.
Performing national service is
one central way.
Citizenship, after all, entails not only benefits but a
willingness to undertake obligations and responsibilities.