Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain’s remark that he would require any Muslims serving in his administration to take a loyalty oath may seem absurd in this country, but this type of oath is still a real political issue in Israel.
When the Netanyahu government supported that immigrants should take a controversial oath of loyalty to “a Jewish and democratic state” in October, there was a huge outcry. Nonetheless, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu Party continue to pursue a universal loyalty oath that “would make citizenship contingent upon one’s declaration of loyalty to the State of Israel as a Jewish state, its symbols, authority and a commitment to serve in the army or in an alternate civilian program.” This issue represents a number of Yisrael Beiteinu proposals critics have increasingly called racist, discriminatory, and even fascist.
Plenty of ink has already been expended over the compatibility of a Jewish state and a democratic state. There are times when balancing the two is undoubtedly a challenge, and a loyalty oath would clearly damage Israel’s democratic identity without doing any good for its Jewish identity.
First off, such an oath would not do anything, considering Israeli law already bars political participation by groups opposing “the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” As such, the loyalty oath amounts to nothing more than political theater; a degradation ceremony for those Arabs who would seek to work within Israel’s democratic system as voters or MKs.
Beyond humiliation, a loyalty oath would infringe on the democratic rights of Israeli citizens (particularly Arabs and Haredi Jews) by making a particular political stance a prerequisite for political participation. It would damage prospects for a lasting peace, as well as for domestic harmony between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs by casting Arabs as second-class citizens. Moreover, it would greatly harm Israel’s claim that it is the only true democracy in the Middle East.
Whether or not the universal loyalty oath ever gains any traction, a whole host of similar propositions pose the same threat, by intent and consequence, to Israeli democracy and the preservation of equal rights for all citizens.
In his recent address to Congress, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke glowingly of democracy, using some form of the word 10 times. He even went so far as to claim that among “the 300 million Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa, only Israel's Arab citizens enjoy real democratic rights.”
He spoke about what he meant by “real, genuine democracy” in his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on the same trip: “I don't just mean elections. I mean freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, the rights for women, for gays, for minorities, for everyone.”
The democracy he is talking about is not the tyranny of the majority; it does not employ intimidation and discrimination to discourage minorities from participating in the democratic process.
For Netanyahu, the gulf between words and deeds is sometimes wide. But he will have to decide which vision (and reality) he supports of the Jewish and democratic state: The lofty democracy he celebrated in his speeches in America or the debased ersatz democracy of Lieberman.
With Israel’s identity on the line, and Yisrael Beiteinu continuing to pursue discriminatory legislation, he should choose carefully.
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