Shabbat Goy: What’s in a name?

I wonder what exactly is meant by the notion of a ‘Jewish and democratic’ state.

By AKIN AYAJI
October 15, 2010 16:19
Illustration

shabbay goy allegiance cartoon. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Once upon a time, I decided to train as a lawyer. I wasn’t a particularly diligent student; a glittering career at the bar never awaited me, and I went off to do other things afterwards. But I did pick up a few useful bits and pieces of information along the way.

I know my consumer rights, for example*; I understand that a threatening letter from a lawyer is usually worth less than the paper it is printed upon. I can translate senseless legalese like rental agreements into everyday language – in short, I have developed something of a talent for detecting bull dressed up in fancy language.

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“What’s in a name? That which we call a Rose/By any other name will smell as sweet.” The same, mutatis mutandis, ought to apply to the manure that helps said rose to bloom, no? Take this business about the loyalty oath, for example.

I suppose one could say that I have something of a vested interest in the debate; in a year or so, I’ll be eligible to apply for Israeli citizenship. If successful, I’d have to take some version of the oath based on the proposed amendment to the Citizenship Law currently passing through the Knesset. That is, assuming that it makes it onto the statute books.

I was vaguely aware of a bit of a fuss about the precise wording. Words like “fascist” and “racist” have been tossed about.

Being the selfish and self-absorbed individual that I am, the general discourse was naturally of little importance to me. But since there is at least a reasonable chance that I’ll need to recite the oath at some point in the future, I thought that I ought to sit up and at least pretend to pay attention.

In principle, I get the argument that the inclusion of the word “Jewish” in the oath – as in the requirement to swear fealty to a Jewish and democratic state – may appear to some a little troubling; if one isn’t Jewish, then this might seem like a bit of a stretch.

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But in practice, it seems that relatively few people would be obliged to take the oath, given that it will apply only to newly naturalized citizens, and no one else.

(What about new immigrants, you ask? Patience, I’ll get to that in a bit.)

FOR SOME odd reason, there don’t appear to be hordes of people queuing up to secure Israeli citizenship. So perhaps this is all just a storm in a teacup. Or perhaps not; either way, it is probably reasonable to consider the wording at least a little more closely.

What exactly is meant by the notion of a “Jewish and democratic” state? Democracy is easy enough: One man, one vote. Which sounds reasonable enough in itself, but I must confess that I’m not exactly the biggest fan of the concept.

I look in the mirror each morning and wonder how exactly I can be expected to make a rational, reasoned decision about who should run the country. I mean, I can scarcely be trusted with the household budget... but I digress.

The biggest fans of democracy tend to be those who are certain that the vote is going to swing their way. Nothing wrong with that, but what would happen if everyone should exercise their legally mandated right to vote for a candidate of their choice? Take Jerusalem, for instance. A third of the population choose not to vote, as a matter of course. Supposing, just suppose, they all decided to back a candidate of their choice in the next mayoral elections; will everyone jumping up and down in favor of a democratic state still be so enamored with the concept? Which leads me to the issue of a “Jewish” democratic state. I’d argue that the true test of the legitimacy of the proposed oath would be whether the existing citizenry would be comfortable with the wording, should they be called upon to take the oath.

Now, even if we accept that Israel is a democratic state – let’s cut out the Arab population for a moment (hey, that’s democracy; it’s not my fault that they are a minority. But this is a thought experiment; just bear with me for a moment). I’d wager that most of the current “Jewish” citizenry of Israel would have a bit of a problem with the word “Jewish” unless it were explicitly defined in advance.

(Incidentally, new olim get a pass on this prickly little issue; they aren’t required to take the oath of loyalty...) We could talk about Jewish as defined according to the Torah, but that would exclude many converts and anyone else who falls outside the ambit of Orthodox definitions (remember the fuss about the Rotem Bill last summer?).

We could consider a political construct of Jewishness (Zionism, in short) but one imagines that this would find more favor with a discrete grouping of non-Jews – Christian Zionists, for example – than it would in the streets of Mea She’arim or Bnei Brak.

I COULD go on, but I’m sure you get my drift. At least, the draft proposes the wording as a Jewish and democratic state, rather than a Jewish democratic state.

Imagine the arguments that wording would cause...

Frankly, it all seems like it is more trouble than it is worth. Especially since, as someone pointed out the other day, the construct of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence – along with the appropriate safeguards to protect the rights of minorities, such as the Arab population whom I managed to forget in the name of democracy a few minutes ago.

All things considered, the current row seems rather pointless.


And another thing besides: Let’s face it, when did an oath or vow actually have any direct impact on a person’s future behavior? Speaking for myself, I know that if I wanted something badly enough, I’d happily promise to anything in order to get it. Ask Mrs. Goy. She knows.

*These, more or less, are precisely nothing. But that’s another matter altogether...

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