Israeli citizenship oath sparks claims of racism

Israeli Arabs compare swearing loyalty to the Jewish state to blacks swearing loyalty to apartheid, writes Mark Weiss in Jerusalem…

Israeli Arabs compare swearing loyalty to the Jewish state to blacks swearing loyalty to apartheid, writes Mark Weissin Jerusalem

THIS WEEK’s decision by the Israeli cabinet approving an amendment to the country’s Citizenship Act unleashed a bitter debate over whether the government was advocating racist legislation that will further undermine the fragile balance between Israel’s Jewish majority and the country’s Arabs, who make up about 20 per cent of the population.

Under the terms of the new amendment, which still has to be voted into law by the Knesset parliament, non-Jews applying for Israeli citizenship will have to pledge the following oath of loyalty: “I swear that I will be a loyal citizen to the state of Israel, as a Jewish and democratic state, and will uphold its laws.”

Jews, who can apply for citizenship automatically, are exempt from the new loyalty oath, but ministers, in response to criticism that the move is racist and discriminatory, are considering applying the amendment to would-be Jewish immigrants as well.

Most affected by the amendment will be Palestinians wishing to marry Israeli Arabs, and foreign workers.

The amendment fulfilled a coalition promise by prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, the second-largest party in the coalition. Its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, now Israel’s foreign minister, based his election campaign on the slogan “No Citizenship Without Loyalty”.

The slogan, and the party’s success, reflected a widespread belief among Israel’s Jewish majority that Israeli Arabs represent a fifth column, more loyal to the Palestinian cause than their country of birth. Israeli Arabs vote overwhelmingly for radical non-Zionist parties, and Israeli-Arab politicians act as vociferous advocates of the Palestinian cause. One former Knesset member, Azmi Bishara, fled Israel after being accused of treason and providing information to Hizbullah.

An Israeli-Arab woman member of the current Knesset, Haneen Zoabi, was bitterly condemned by Jewish parliamentarians for sailing aboard the Mavi Marmara, part of the Gaza-bound aid flotilla intercepted by Israeli commandos in May, resulting in the death of nine activists.

Dr Adel Manna, an Israeli-Arab historian who lives in Jerusalem, told The Irish Times that it was only natural that the country’s Arabs would oppose the legislation.

“As a Palestinian resident of Israel, I am against the idea that Israel can be a state for all the world’s Jews, for Jews from America and Britain, but excludes me, a native of this country,” she said.

Dr Manna, a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, believes the government introduced the legislation at this juncture because Israeli negotiators are demanding that the Palestinian leadership recognise Israel as a Jewish state. Now, they are making similar demands from Israeli Arabs.

“It’s absurd. The message is that even though the state is not loyal to you and makes you a second-class citizen, you must swear allegiance,” Dr Manna said. “It’s like asking blacks in South Africa to swear allegiance to the apartheid regime.”

But Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, from the Yisrael Beiteinu party, said the demand to recognise Israel as a Jewish state was perfectly legitimate. He noted that Israel’s declaration of independence used the same phrase five times.

Mr Ayalon suggested that the fierce opposition to the amendment was part of the current international campaign to delegitimise Israel.

“When we ask prospective citizens to emphasise Israel’s status as both a Jewish and democratic state, we call on them to embrace the true meaning and substance of the state of Israel, without compromising their civil rights,” he said. “Without these terms, Israel’s unique significance is rendered meaningless.”

Those who refused to acknowledge Israel’s national character want to strip it of any defining features, he argued, and turn Israel into a “Hebrew-speaking republic”.