Between loyalty and betrayal: Israeli democracy in 2010

Loyalty bill crosses line from what is commonplace in democracies to what is commonplace in countries Israel would not want to associate with.

"Tyranny of the majority” is one of those Democracy 101 terms, invoked to differentiate as-if democracies, in which the system of government is dominated by adhering to the majority’s rule, from true democracies – in which the whims of shifting political majorities cannot trump constitutional rights: protection of the equality of all citizens and communities, safeguarding minority rights, freedom of speech, protest and dissent. These are the building blocks of a true democracy, the tests any real democracy must pass.
Israeli democracy is failing its citizens. Pretending to advance “loyalty,” MKs are in fact betraying our democracy. The “declaration of loyalty” bill, voted through in the cabinet on Sunday, is just one unfortunate expression of an unprecedented, current tide of antidemocratic legislation, attacking democracy at its very heart.
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Indeed, Israel, as many other countries, requires those wishing to naturalize and become citizens to swear allegiance to their new country. The current wording of this declaration, as mandated by law and as in effect for decades, is “I declare that I will be a loyal citizen of the State of Israel.”
For our current prime minister, justice minister, foreign minister and others, for some reason that is no longer sufficient.
Instead, they voted for a new version requiring non- Jews seeking naturalization to declare loyalty to “the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”
This new version crosses the line from what is commonplace in democracies to what is commonplace in countries Israel would not want to associate with. It is one thing to require adherence to the law; it is another altogether to demand that free individuals in a democracy sign on to a specific ideology or identity – and specifically one with particular religious content.
ONE MAY theorize that these are just words, they carry no concrete implications. It is symbolic, not practical. But symbols do matter, and in fact practical implications, and very troubling ones, do exist.
Symbolically, the new declaration of loyalty sends a clear message to all non-Jews in Israel, whether they were born citizens or have naturalized. It tells one in five Israelis: You are less a citizen than your Jewish neighbor, you have less ownership of your country, less stake in its future than other citizens. Thus, it introduces an oxymoron into the to-be-amended Citizenship Law: Telling some citizens that they are less equal than others is essentially anti-democratic. Requiring an oath to a Jewish Israel immediately makes that very Israel less of a democracy.
Practically, the new oath could limit the freedom of speech of naturalized citizens. As this country lacks a constitution, the conversation on its potential content rages on – as would be hoped for in a democracy. Many support, for instance, constitutionally enshrining full equal rights in a country that is a full democracy of all its citizens. It should be obvious that citizens in a democracy can advocate such a position – and indeed, there are current citizens who do.
But future naturalized citizens could find themselves criminalized if they make statements supporting such a position, which could be interpreted by the authorities as opposing the new oath. Such are the contradictions one runs into when trying to legislate ideology; that is why true democracies refrain from doing so. All citizens’ – whether through birth or naturalization – beliefs, views and opinions should not be policed or criminalized.
Demanding “loyalty” was Israel Beiteinu’s campaign highlight. The declaration of loyalty bill is an essential part of that party’s platform, but now it will become the law of the State of Israel. On its heels, we can already foresee what awaits us on the next step down this slippery slope, with a spate of bills all using similar language: the bill on MKs’ pledge of allegiance, the cinema bill that requires the entire crew of a film that seeks public funding to pledge allegiance and the anti-incitement bill (that already passed preliminary reading) which would criminalize speaking – oops, that is, inciting – against Israel as “Jewish and democratic.”
To gain further perspective, it is worth pointing out that current laws criminalize incitement for racism or violence.
It was the speaker of the Knesset himself, MK Reuven Rivlin (Likud), who recently said: “Certain MKs... create an international image of Israel as an apartheid state.”
Alas, these are not just “certain MKs,” but the government from the prime minister down; and the issue is not that of “international image,” but of the actual reality Israelis live in. Before we continue sliding down, it is time to renew our loyalty to the true makings of a real democracy: human rights, social justice and full equality.
The writer is executive director of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).