The loyalty oath won't win loyalty

Redressing inequalities – in infrastructure, education, unemployment – would more likely secure allegiance.

David Rotem 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
David Rotem 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
‘Liberty,” said George Orwell, “means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
The slew of what can only be described as reactionary legislation currently making its way through the Knesset indicates that there are a significant number of lawmakers who do not wish to hear from a large section of the population. But more than that, these bills threaten both the liberal and democratic values of the State of Israel, while at the same time exacerbating the problems they purportedly come to solve.
One of the most notorious examples of this provocative legislation is, of course, the amendment to the loyalty oath for naturalized citizens which was recently approved by the cabinet for debate in the Knesset’s legislative committee. Another is the dubious Citizenship Act, endorsed by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) last week. These proposed laws are exemplars of other, similar bills which will in no way solve the underlying concern motivating them, namely the loyalty of Arab citizens, but which instead serve only to disaffect them further.
David Rotem of Israel Beiteinu, sponsor of the citizenship act bill, has been particularly active in promoting a number of antagonistic laws. One is a bill amending the pledge of allegiance for members of Knesset, similar to the loyalty oath for naturalized citizens, so that the prospective MK would, as an addition to the current pledge of allegiance to “the State of Israel,” also have to include the words “as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Like the amended loyalty oath for new citizens, this law would have no practical effect on anyone mumbling words forced into his mouth. It would not make Arab lawmakers fall in love with the Zionist cause, even if they were to utter such a pledge. What it would do, and what it is seemingly designed to do, is to prevent Arab politicians from entering the Knesset.
But it is simply undemocratic to predicate political representation on nationalistic, religious or ideological sentiment.
What would Jews the world over say if the House of Commons of the United Kingdom still required members to swear the Oath of Allegiance “upon the true faith of a Christian.” In 1858, Lionel de Rothschild finally won his 11-year battle to remove that obligation, allowing him to take his seat as a Jewish Member of Parliament.
Rotem and Israel Beiteinu would have democracy regress by a century and a half because they are not confident enough in their own identity to defend the founding principles of this country without resorting to authoritarian practices.
Fortunately, the bill has not been advanced because of a lack of agreement within the government, but the very fact that it is being advocated once again gives notice to the Arab community that its identity and feelings are not as deserving of representation in this country as others.
Other bills are having more success. The Nakba Bill, of infamous renown, has passed its first reading in Knesset and is due to be discussed again ahead of its second and third readings. The current version, prohibiting public funding for events and activities marking Israel’s independence as a catastrophe or day of mourning, is not particularly objectionable in the eyes of many. But the original bill, proposed by Alex Miller of Israel Beiteinu and initially endorsed by the government, sought to actually criminalize any such activity.
ORWELLIAN IMAGERY is often overused, but this astounding attempt to institute thought crime legislation seems to come straight out of the pages of 1984. And, again, the question has to be asked: Would imprisoning an Arab citizen for such activities really make him and his community more loyal to the state? Similar bills include the other pillar of Israel Beiteinu’s platform – an oath of allegiance to the State of Israel as a Jewish state for all citizens (which has twice been proposed); Zevulun Orlev’s anti-incitement bill, which would see people arrested for publishing opinions with which he does not agree; and the admissions committee for communal settlements bill, which was approved in committee last week. All such laws would erode freedom of expression and other intrinsic rights of a democracy, and would at the same time further alienate Arab citizens.
The 1.5 million Arabs living in this country are an inherent part of the state. The question is whether our country in 10 or 20 years will have to deal permanently with scenes such as we saw in Umm el- Fahm last week, or whether we can find it in ourselves to tolerate those with a different identity as a legitimate part of our society.
Maybe we should have the courage to listen to the grievances of the Arab community, examine the discrepancies in public funding for infrastructure and education, and address the low representation of Arab workers in the public sector and the high level of Arab unemployment. It seems that action to redress such inequalities might go a lot further to securing the loyalty of Arab citizens than antagonizing them with legislation which makes them feel unwelcome in the country in which they were born.
If bills such as these are passed, and if the sentiment behind them becomes the predominant attitude, as is increasingly the case according to recent polls, then we will have demonstrated that we lack the conviction to argue the rightness of the Zionist cause. The riposte to the vitriol of Ahmed Tibi, Haneen Zoabi and others is not to silence them but to proudly defend the notion of a Jewish nation-state as a legitimate national right, enjoyed by myriad other nations, while at the same time having the humanity to tolerate and provide equal rights to those who don’t share our national identity.
Advocates and friends of Israel are rightly proud of the fact that Salim Joubran is a permanent justice on the Supreme Court, that Majallie Whbee and Tibi are deputy speakers of the Knesset, and that Arab citizens and other minorities can and do play a big role in public life. The fact that some of the current bills going through the Knesset trample on democratic values does not seem to bother their proponents, but it should be of concern for those who would like to continue to laud Israel’s democratic principles, as well as for anyone who hopes that Israel can become an even more just and viable society.
Benjamin Franklin once wrote: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” If we stay true to our democratic principles, we can preserve the liberty of the state and enhance the safety and cohesiveness of our society in so doing.
The writer is a researcher and analyst based in Jerusalem. He has worked at several Israeli think tanks and served in the IDF Spokesman’s Unit.