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 the oath.

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 conscience.

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 acceptance process.

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 to democracy.”

Adopting such an extreme position prevents constructive dialogue.

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.

MORE 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 political community.”

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 as important.

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 rights.

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.

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