Could opposition to the ‘loyalty oath’ bring out the best in Israelis?

When America Pastor Terry Jones recently threatened to burn a Koran, which is his constitutional right, America shouted him down. Voices on all sides of the political spectrum united in eloquent protest – such as Sarah Palin, whose Facebook site said: “Book burning is bad.”  (OK, she wrote a few other things). 

My cynical expat friend, author and journalist Charles Glass, was humbled. “Yet the public didn’t buy it,” he wrote. “For the first time in recorded history, someone underestimated the intelligence of the plain people and lost. Sometimes I’m proud of my countrymen, and this is such a time.”

Now that Israel has its very own version of legal but deplorable provocation, I want to feel the same kind of pride too. It’s hard. The mean-spirited amendment forcing non-Jewish immigrants to swear allegiance to a Jewish and democratic state came not from a nutty pastor, but from the Prime Minister himself, and his Justice Minister too (but the voice was that of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman). The oath replaces the perfectly functional previous immigration oath to the State of Israel.

Still, a striking roster of prominent figures bluntly opposed the amendment.

Some are expected, like Hagai Elad of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. He writes, cogently as ever, how the amendment itself threatens democratic values:

“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… Practically, the new oath could limit the freedom of speech of naturalized citizens. …future naturalized citizens could find themselves criminalized if they make statements [debating the character of the state]”

He goes on to warn that this is another dangerous slippery slope, with a string of anti-democratic legislation that awaits us at the end.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni is against it: “I see this bill as instigating internal conflicts for political gain” she was quoted saying by the Jerusalem Post.“This government talks about strengthening Israel as a Jewish state, but ends up weakening it time and time again.”

Most importantly, perhaps, three ministers from Likud voted against it. Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Micki Eitan broke party ranks, letting their rational faculties guide them rather than cynical politics. Ruby Rivlin, Speaker of the Knesset and a Likud stalwart, railed against the amendment, which he said can only play into the hands of Israel’s enemies. “I am a fervent Zionist, and I need no strengthening of my belief …any additions of this type can only be harmful.”

Labor’s Minister of Welfare Isaac Herzog warned of fascist tendencies, which earned him the scorn of some commentators. But even those pundits repudiated the amendment. Amos Carmel, writing in Yediot Aharonot calls the amendment “a superfluous expression of stupidity,” mainly because it does not do the one thing that is most important to Israel: contribute to security. Ben Dror Yemini, the hawkish provocateur from Maariv – opposed the law using uncannily similar language “superfluous and stupid,” even as he blasted the term “fascism.” But the amendment will simply be ineffective, he said. Anyone who really wants to immigrate will “say he believes in the coming of the messiah and in reincarnation”.

Ehud Barak managed to lose his moral and ideological compass entirely. His shameful initial support was outdone only by his pathetic fig-leaf zig-zag compromise (that the law would stipulate “in the spirit of the declaration of independence”). His vote against the bill was pointless by then.

But the unified opposition of such diverse figures may have exposed a rusty values compass buried somewhere beneath ceaseless cynical politicking. It took dangerous extremism to bring it out, but maybe now we will wield it against similarly ominous legislative initiatives in the future.

What of the amendment itself? Two bothersome arguments against its detractors stick in my head. Some immigrants are not Arab, but foreign workers of various nationalities – why assume it’s anti-Arab? On paper, true. But we all know who the audience is. Our ears are still ringing with “No loyalty, no citizenship,” Lieberman’s nasty campaign slogan, and its ugly racist twin “Only Lieberman speaks Arabic.” My personal argument is more sensitive: perhaps it is hypocritical to accuse the amendment of creating inequality – since I myself attained citizenship through the Jews-only Law of Return.

But there are compelling, not-so-distant historical reasons for the law of return. I do believe in my right to be in Israel – but I don’t believe in abusing this unique selectivity, to deepen the massive fissures in our troubled social fabric.

To my mind, the amendment foreshadows an Israel that is both less democratic, and less Jewish. It weaves inequality into the start of a new non-Jewish citizen’s experience; many of whom will go on to face discrimination and unequal resource allocation, structural inequalities. It says, in effect, that in terms of equality – democracy starts and ends with the oath.

Regarding the Jewish state: what meaning can the oath possibly have for a non-Jew? Jewish culture is already dominant in Israel. Jewish religious belief, surely, cannot be forced on anyone. No, in this context Judaism, like democracy, is a set of values – like “do unto others as you would have done to yourself.” Tikkun olam. Justice thou shalt pursue. Such values must be lived, they can’t be coerced. Rabbi David Hartman brilliantly spoke of A Living Covenant, which to me means: make the values integral to the relationship. What better way to alienate people from Jewish values than to coerce them.

This dark moment in Israel’s political culture should become an opportunity to remember our values and ground ourselves in what’s right. If the Knesset votes this unworthy bill down, I will be the first to say I’m proud of my chosen country.