Israeli academics critical of proposed loyalty pledge

Issues with pledge include: lack of clear meaning, creates more problems than it solves, unfairly targets Israeli Arabs.

Even academics who agree with the constitutional definition of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state have problems with the new pledge of allegiance the government plans to enforce on non-Jews seeking citizenship.
According to the proposed reform, candidates for citizenship would have to make the following pledge: “I declare that I will be a loyal citizen of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” The words “as a Jewish and democratic state” are an addition to the traditional pledge.
Hebrew University political scientist Shlomo Avineri said he had no problem with having would-be citizens make a pledge that went beyond the minimal promise to obey the country’s laws. In the US, he pointed out, new citizens must promise to defend the country, serve in the army, and perform any civilian service.
Nevertheless, he continued, it would be a mistake to force newcomers to pledge allegiance to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, because no one really knows what “a Jewish state” (or a democratic one, for that matter) means.
“It is an intentionally vague concept so that everyone in Israel can imagine it in his own way,” said Avineri. “If Israelis have no uniform conception of what a Jewish state is, how can we expect someone from the outside to know?” Avineri proposed that new citizens should pledge allegiance to “the legitimacy of Israel.”
The Arab states have always charged that Israel is an illegitimate state, he explained.
Since many new citizens will come from Arab countries in the context of family unification, they should be asked precisely to declare that Israel is legitimate.
According to Hebrew University professor and Israel Democracy Institute deputy president Mordechai Kremnitzer, most laws are meant to solve problems.
“This law is unique in the sense that it creates problems,” he said.
He started out with the premise that the bill would not affect Palestinians seeking to marry Israelis and move to Israel, because family reunification was already blocked by another law.
As for other foreigners, he continued, “There is no phenomenon of a new Israeli who proved disloyal to the state after becoming a citizen. Therefore, there is no problem that needs solving.”
The bill’s real target is the Israeli Arabs, Kremnitzer charged. He quoted a statement made earlier Thursday by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose party sponsored a far more sweeping bill.
Lieberman, said Kremnitzer, did not refer to new citizens in the context of the proposed new pledge but to Israeli Arab MK Haneen Zoabi (Balad).
“The idea is tell us all, ‘Look, these citizens are not really loyal to Israel, because if they were forced to make a pledge, they would refuse.’ The bill is meant to cast a shadow on the loyalty of the Israeli Arabs.”
Bar-Ilan University professor and Israel Democracy Institute deputy president Yedidya Stern said he had no problem with the pledge of allegiance proposed by the government, but added that it was not necessary and was being introduced for the wrong reasons.
“The pledge raises no legal problems,” he said. “In other words, a state may decide that whoever wants to become a citizen should be able to make a statement of loyalty. Moreover, the state can define itself according to the constitution...
“We should be proud that this is the definition we chose for ourselves. We have placed it in the top hierarchy of Israeli legislation. We shouldn’t attack it. It is not against anybody.”
Nonetheless, he continued, precisely because of its importance, it should not be exploited for political purposes.
“I think it’s too serious for that,” he continued. “It’s too important to let people like Lieberman use it. It belongs to us. It’s everyone’s.”
Stern warned that overusing the concept might harm Israel.
“We have to show ourselves and the world our self-confidence by not pushing it,” he said. “[The fact that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state] is known. We don’t hide it and we have nothing to hide.”
Tel Aviv University’s Haim Gans warned that the government was humiliating the Israeli Arab community by forcing new citizens to make the new pledge.
The pledge, he said, would have practical consequences for the Israeli Arab community, since Arabs from other countries, including the West Bank, who wish to marry Israeli Arabs, will be unable to do so because they will be unwilling to pledge loyalty to the “Jewish and democratic state.”
“In light of Israel’s interpretation of its Jewish nature, which is hierarchical and non-egalitarian, this proposal is another means for humiliating its Arab citizens,” he charged.
Gans believes that the only just solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is the establishment of two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian, while the Arab minority in Israel must be granted equal rights in accordance with the special status of a native and historic people, exactly like the Jews.
“When we humiliate the Arabs, as we do by this legislation, we make them second- class citizens,” he continued.
“We are telling them that they live here by charity, not by right. The bill is just another expression of the same thing.”