Michael Jansen
The Jordan Times (Opinion)
October 14, 2010 - 12:00am

The adoption by Israel of a loyalty oath to be applied to non-Jews seeking naturalisation was inevitable. It was inevitable because Israel is a “Jewish state” founded by Zionist Jews for Zionist Jews.

In the view of Theodor Herzl, the father of the state, it was meant to be a place of safety for Jews persecuted in the diaspora. But the vision of Herzl, a liberal secular Jewish journalist from Budapest, was not the vision of other groups of Zionists who joined his project. Some wanted to redeem Jews from centuries of ghetto life by settling them on farms and attaching them to the land. Some sought redemption through service in paramilitary and military formations. Others were religious Jews who sought to?“save” themselves and build a Jewish theocracy. Most, whether secular or religious, had a messianic mission they carried to the Jewish state. These groups had very different ideas about what the Jewish state should be and even disputed Jewish identity by engaging in a protracted argument over “who is a Jew”.

Israel’s diversity and divergences were regarded as an asset rather than a source of conflict.

The majority of leaders involved in the establishment of the state - David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres - were secular Jews of a socialist bent building a state for Jews like themselves. But among their partners were darker figures like Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir who were ultra-Zionists. They founded the Likud bloc, which is now leading a government of right wingers. Lurking in the background were fundamentalist rabbis and expansionist settler-colonists.

The balance of power began to shift away from the secular camp once immigrants from Yemen and the Arab countries abandoned the Labour party for the Likud in the 1970s. This became more pronounced after the flood of one million generally anti-leftist immigrants from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, in the 1980s and 1990s. Parties on the extreme right proliferated, moving Israel’s centre of political gravity rightwards, decreasing toleration of differences and divergencies.

It is no accident that Israel Beiteinu, the party founded by Avigdor Lieberman, an immigrant from Moldova who is now Israel’s foreign minister, was the force behind the proposed legislation. He had called for a loyalty oath for all non-Jewish citizens of Israel but this was rejected by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Lieberman and Interior Minister Eli Yishai, of the Eastern Orthodox (Sephardi) Shas party, intend to follow up the initial loyalty measure with a string of others.

Yishai seeks to revoke the citizenship of people (Palestinians) who joined or join Hamas, Hizbollah or other organisations resisting the Israeli occupation. Lieberman says he will table a bill requiring 16-year olds to sign a loyalty oath not only to Israel but also to Zionism when they fill out their application for an identity card. Such a law would target young Palestinian citizens of Israel already alienated by Israeli Jewish discrimination against them.

Other right wingers want loyalty oaths for Knesset members, non-governmental organisations and film producers; they want bans on boycotts and boycotters, and on discussion of the Palestinian Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1947-49.

While the initial bill, if adopted by the Knesset, will have limited application, it is clearly discriminatory as only non-Jews would have to swear loyalty. Many of those to be subjected to the oath are likely to be Palestinians from the occupied territories or the diaspora who seek to marry, or marry Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The extension of any loyalty requirement would be severely discriminatory towards Palestinian citizens of Israel who have always been treated as second, third, fourth or fifth class citizens - depending on how the latest wave of immigrants was being treated.

Loyalty laws could very well be used by right wingers to silence moderates and leftists who do not agree with the rightist agenda for Israel.

This is already happening. Israel is descending into the kind of political repression that ruled the US during the 1950s when Senator Joseph McCarthy held hearings on the loyalty of US citizens suspected of harbouring sympathies for the Soviet Union or flirting with the Communist party.

It is ironic that many of the leftist Jews who were targeted by McCarthy in his reign of terror fled to Israel which was, at the time, far more tolerant of differences than now.

Writing in the Israeli liberal daily Haaretz, Gideon Levy warns that the demand for loyalty constitutes “a dangerous McCarthyist dance on the part of ignorant legislators who haven’t begun to understand what democracy is all about. It’s dangerous even if only a portion of the [20 proposed] bills become law, because our fate and our essence will change”.

Levy castigates Netanyahu, who grew up in the Likud, and Lieberman, who came from a totalitarian background, for failing to understand that democracy is not simply the rule of the majority but involves protection not usurpation of minority rights. Levy also berates secular, leftist or moderate Israelis for failing to rush into the streets to protest the loyalty proposition.

Only 100 academics and artists assembled in a Tel Aviv square to vent their opposition to the measure. Several protested that it runs counter to Israel’s declaration of independence, which says that the state will “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex”.

Educator Gavriel Solomon compared the measure to the racist laws passed by the Nazis in Germany in 1935: “There were no [death] camps then but there were racist laws. And we are heading towards these kinds of laws. The government is clearly declaring our incapacity for democracy.”

Some commentators argue that Netanyahu agreed to the loyalty oath in order to secure Lieberman’s support for a 60-day extension of the so-called “settlement freeze” demanded by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before he will return to negotiations. However, the “freeze” was more symbolic than real, because during the 10 months it lasted, Israel continued to build thousands of housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

By contrast, the march of loyalty oaths is likely to have a real impact on the lives of Palestinians, Palestinian citizens of Israel and Israelis who, like Levy, do not like the direction Israel is taking.


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