(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Israel Democracy Institute’s latest Democracy Index reports that 54 percent
of Israelis favor requiring citizens to take an oath of loyalty to Israel as a
“Jewish and democratic state” as a condition for being allowed to vote. This bad
idea should be opposed on principled and pragmatic grounds alike.
means that society may not coerce the expression of an opinion.
is not free if government may impose sanctions upon those who refuse to express
How much more so is this the case if the proposed
sanction is to withhold the most fundamental right of citizenship from those
whose opinions are deemed politically incorrect? Democracy rests on the freely
given consent of the governed. It is no democracy if government, which always
represents the opinion and the interests of particular parties, has the power to
penalize those who disagree with it. How much more so is this the case when the
penalty inflicted is withholding the right to determine the balance of political
power in the country? Grant governments the right to impose loyalty oaths as the
price of political participation, and they will design those oaths to exclude
their political opponents from the ballot.
This is the real motive behind
the loyalty oaths currently being proposed, dressed up though they may be in
The classic expression of these principles appears in
the decision of the US Supreme Court in West Virginia vs. Barnette. At the
height of World War II, the state of West Virginia passed a law requiring
schoolchildren to pledge allegiance to the flag. The sect of Jehovah’s Witnesses
refuses to express allegiance to any worldly authority. The children of
Jehovah’s Witnesses were expelled from the schools, and their parents threatened
with fines and imprisonment.
The court ruled that “the very purpose of a
Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of
political controversy, [and] to place them beyond the reach of majorities and
officials... One’s right to life, liberty and property, to free speech, a free
press, freedom of worship and assembly and other fundamental rights may not be
submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.
“We set up
government by consent of the governed, and the Bill of Rights denies those in
power any legal opportunity to coerce that consent. Authority here is to be
controlled by public opinion, not public opinion by
PERSONALLY, I find the values that the proposed oath is
supposed to support unobjectionable. It is the oath itself that undermines those
values. If required to take the oath, I might refuse, even though I agreed with
every word of it.
I was intimately involved during the terms of the 16th
and 17th Knessets in efforts to adopt a constitution. In the end, the
constitutional project failed. It proved impossible to achieve a consensus on
the values to be safeguarded in the constitution, and on the relative power of
Knesset, government and judiciary. No constitutional draft could garner the
support of a majority. Even if one had, it would have left hundreds of thousands
if not millions feeling that the constitution had been deliberately written to
And yet the State of Israel carries on, and de facto
support for the sovereign Jewish state that now exists in Eretz Yisrael thrives.
Hundreds of thousands of haredim wish the sovereign Jewish state well, whatever
their rabbis say, and increasing numbers share in its defense. Their
representatives and (increasingly) their students in higher education use the
vocabulary of civil rights and liberties, even if such terminology is taboo in
the beit midrash.
Many of them would refuse to take an oath that their
formal ideology refuses to sanction, even though their actions and their
politics affirm the values contained in that oath every day.
thousands of ordinary Arab citizens go about their daily business, working
alongside Jews and enjoying liberties and opportunities they could never attain
20 kilometers to the east, under the Palestinian Authority. Their leaders, too,
fulminate against the Jewish state, but the last thing ordinary Arabs want is
for Israel to go away.
A loyalty oath requires people to swear allegiance
to a particular state of Israel – the existing one, with its public culture,
policy errors, ideology and political institutions. For many Israelis the state
is far from their ideals, whatever their ideals, and not something they would
swear allegiance to. And yet this flawed state and society attracts their
support in practice. Many are willing to fight, even to give their lives for
what we have, however far removed it is from what they desire.
oath would do nothing to increase allegiance to the State of Israel.
would needlessly alienate citizens whose sentiments, if not their ideology,
support the state, divide and weaken society rather than strengthen and bring it
together. It is neither just nor expedient, and should be opposed.The
writer heads the Israel Policy Center, whose mission includes strengthening
Israel as a Jewish democracy. The views expressed in the article are his alone.