Today, Primer Minister Benyamin Netanyahu approved a proposal to amend the Citizenship Law to include a mandatory “loyalty oath,” which would require every new Israeli citizen to swear allegiance to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. (Netanyahu had previously urged a “less divisive” oath.) Labor ministers in the government are grumbling and Defense Minister Barak has submitted his own version, worded in a more “liberal spirit.”
On its face, a loyalty oath may seem fairly reasonable. After all, many Western democracies have oaths of allegiance. And in the case of Israel, since 1948, the declaration of independence has made it clear that Israel is a Jewish state and a state for the Jewish People in the land of Israel. Therefore, a loyalty oath in which citizens are required to declare that Israel is a Jewish state should not be surprising.
However, there are a number of problems with such an oath. First, even though the declaration of independence does state that Israel is a Jewish state, the declaration has no formal legal value. This is due to the fact that it was ratified before the formal end of the British Mandate in Palestine and therefore before the Israeli parliament (Knesset in Hebrew) had the legal standing to pass laws. Subsequently, Israel failed to adopt a formal constitution and instead enacted a series of Basic Laws. Of those, the Law of Return came closest to declaring the Jewish character of Israel, by stating that every Jew has “the right of return” to Israel.
But it was not until 1992, 44 years after independence, that the Knesset passed the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom, which finally stated overtly that Israel is a Jewish state: “the purpose of this Basic Law is to protect human dignity and liberty, in order to establish in a Basic Law the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Even then the issue of Israel as Jewish was controversial. But a law mandating allegiance to a Jewish state is even more troublesome. Requiring an oath of loyalty to a Jewish state, when 20% of the population is not only Israeli-Arab, but is actually feeling disfranchised by the Israeli establishment and is continuously subject to prejudice and stereotypes, is not only unwise, it is a foolish affront that skims the line of racism. Moreover, passing such an amendment while there is a small hope that peace negotiations will continue, sabotages any hope of success.
Prime Minister Netanyahu showed courage and leadership by enacting a 10-month building freeze in the Occupied Territories, and by agreeing to meet the Palestinians in direct peace talks. But he has failed to follow through by standing up to his rightist coalition in the name of peace.