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October 13, 2010

Israeli citizenship law, democracy or fascism?

Reuel S. Amdur

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The Israeli cabinet has approved a draft amendment to the country's citizenship law, an amendment likely to pass the Knesset. It would require non-Jews wanting to become citizens to swear an oath to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state." The requirement has several implications.

First, it follows another recent Israeli initiative.  Then, it has implications for the so-called peace negotiations.  As well, there are implications for Israel’s future and for the Palestinian population of the country.  We start with the matter of the other related initiative.

In the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, Israel has demanded that Palestine recognize Israel as a Jewish state.  However, states do not recognize each other in terms of ideology or religion.  They recognize each other de jure or de facto, period.  Incidentally, the Canadian Jewish Congress thinks that this demand is totally reasonable. Would they like it if Canada declared itself a Christian and democratic state? 

This demand by Netanyahu in all likelihood is intended to insure that the talks fail.  In that case, Netanyahu will complain, “See, they are so unreasonable that they could not even accept the fundamental character of Israel.  They really want to destroy us.”  On the other hand, if the Palestinian Authority agrees, it indicates a desperation and weakness which will likely end in the establishment of a weak puppet state.

While in the past Netanyahu has done everything in his power to avoid a peace agreement, it appears that currently, under pressure from Obama, he is at least prepared to go through the motions.

Part of that approach would be a renewal of the ban on construction in the West Bank. The most optimistic possibility is that he would be prepared to settle for a Palestine that finds itself weak, helpless, shrunken, and fractured into a number of unconnected fragments.  Perhaps the more realistic one is that he would hope for the quickest collapse of talks possible followed by an end to the renewed ban.

However, for him to make the necessary concessions to get the talks back on the road, he has to overcome difficulties within his own coalition government. 

For example, his deputy prime minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the extremist Yisrael Beitenu, recently told the UN that any final peace settlement is decades away.  It has been suggested that the new oath of allegiance is an effort to bribe Lieberman to go along with a new temporary freeze on construction in the West Bank.  There are difficulties with this strategy.

First, it is uncertain that Lieberman will go along with Netanyahu, even with the proffered bribe.  Then, it seems almost certain that the settlers will not.  They violated the last freeze as much as they could get away with, and it is likely that they will resist any attempt to renew the freeze.

The more radical among them may well be prepared to use violence against efforts to implement a freeze, and they are scattered through all levels of the Israeli Defense Forces, creating a very serious prospect for the government.  Such are the consequences of Israel’s permanent policy of “facts on the ground.” 

Finally, we come to the meaning for Palestinian Israelis and for Israel more generally. 

The final form of the oath is still under consideration, and there is even some talk of making it a requirement for Jewish immigrants, but that seems unlikely, as some Orthodox Jews are anti-Zionist and would find themselves excluded.  (They see a Jewish state as sacrilegious, believing that only the Messiah can create a Jewish state.)

Among Jewish legislators, Isaac Herzog, a Labor member of cabinet, said that the proposed oath puts Israel “on a slippery slope,” and indeed Lieberman and other extremists in the Knesset have proposed other loyalty requirements for current citizens of Israel. 

So Netanyahu wants to give them something to get them to make concessions, if only temporarily, but as the French say, the appetite grows with the eating. 

Some Israelis, including Herzog, have called the requirement of the oath fascist, and Professor Gavriel Solomon went so far as to compare it with 1935 anti-Semitic laws in Nazi Germany. 

Abdel Rahman Zubai, A Christian Palestinian, retired as a judge on the Israeli Supreme Court, said that if the oath is adopted, “There will be two countries in the world that in my opinion are racist: Iran, which is an Islamic state, and Israel, which is a Jewish state.” 

Tzipi Livni, leader of the opposition and head of Kadima, has spoken in opposition, as have some members of Netanyahu’s own Likud.

Mohammed Barakeh, head of the Hadash faction in the Knesset, called the oath “mega-racist legislation,” and Knesset member Talah al-Sana said that the oath “is a serious blow to democracy and will cause the exclusion of 20% of the country’s citizens.” 

In fact, one group that would be victimized is Palestinian families with one marriage partner in the Occupied Territories, wanting to join a husband or wife in Israel, even now a difficult proposition.

While the oath purports to command loyalty to a Jewish and democratic state, it has long been a matter of debate in Israel itself as to whether the two are in fact compatible. 

If Israel is to be democratic, can it maintain its Jewishness in the face of possible demographic shifts? 

Jamal Zahalka, leader of the Balad faction in the Knesset, points to the large number of laws that discriminate against non-Jews and the discriminatory application of other laws, which, according to Knesset member Dr. Ahmed Tibi, make Israel a democracy just for the Jews. 

Then of course there is the matter of the control and exploitation of the West Bank. 

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