The plot thickens. In our last episode of “As the Jewish World Turns,” the once sacrosanct maxim “we are one” was being attacked by Knesset members promoting legislation on conversion that threatened to alienate vast numbers of Jews around the world. With tension over the issue reaching a crescendo, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu orchestrated a dramatic end-of-season cliffhanger by keeping the proposed law from coming to a vote until the Knesset recessed for the summer – leaving a large audience of avid Israel-watchers waiting breathlessly for the show’s next installment.
This week the drama resumed with an unexpected twist, boosting Israel’s media rating once again and assuring our beleaguered nation yet another chance to be crowned “the country the world most loves to hate.”
Even as Jewish leaders were still struggling to defuse this spring’s “who is a Jew?” crisis, the prime minister overloaded them a new one by raising the no less complex issue of “what is a Jewish state?”
He did this by advancing legislation requiring non- Jews wishing to become citizens to declare their loyalty to Israel “as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Sorry, but this time the director has lost me entirely.
ONE, THE proposal is oxymoronic, not to mention duplicitous. Equality is fundamental to democracy, yet this declaration, purportedly intended to uphold that very value, tramples on it instead. Only non-Jews would be required to pledge their allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state, thereby instantly turning it into a nondemocratic one. Doublespeak at its finest. Words, in the words of George Orwell, “deliberately constructed for political purposes.”
Two, it’s not sensible. Don’t get me wrong. I firmly believe in Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
I was one of the authors of the Jerusalem Program adopted by the World Zionist Organization in 2004 that calls for “strengthening Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state.”
But that same manifesto also calls for making of that state “an exemplary society with a unique moral and spiritual character... rooted in the vision of the prophets, striving for peace and contributing to the betterment of the world.”
There needn’t be a disconnect between the two phrases, but this week the cabinet created one.
In this newly proposed loyalty oath, does “Jewish state” refer to a political entity inherently belonging to the Jewish people – in which case we are back to grappling with the question of who is a Jew, not to mention ignoring the Palestinians’ legitimate claims to portions of the land. Or perhaps it refers to a state based on Jewish values, or maybe Jewish law? Is it a country in which Bible is history, or metaphor? Maybe it means a state which guarantees a Jewish majority – leaving open the question of how a growing non-Jewish minority might eventually have to be dispensed with.
All these options are open to innumerable interpretations and multiple manifestations. As a non-Jew I certainly wouldn’t pledge allegiance to a Jewish state until I knew just what “they” had in mind. I probably wouldn’t do it then either, even if I’d had every intention of being a loyal citizen. There are some things that are just too hard to say. For God’s sake, Jews in America are incensed by morning prayers in public schools even when their own children are excused from attending them. And how many Jews would be prepared to live anywhere where they had to swear loyalty to Christendom, even if guaranteed full equality and religious freedom?
Three, it’s not wise. Passage of this amendment to the Citizenship Law is a gratuitous and blatant provocation. And one with no positive practical implications. Any idea of how many non-Jews actually become naturalized citizens each year? A maximum of 200 to 250, primarily after marrying into the families of Arab citizens. Clearly our prime minister and foreign minister don’t really fear that their disloyalty would topple the Jewish state. The animosity and sense of estrangement that their initiative will breed at home, and the legitimacy it will lend to our detractors abroad, constitute a far greater danger to our survival.
BUT PERHAPS I am being overly sensitive, a bleedingheart liberal concerned about defending everyone else’s rights but not his own. So I decided to investigate the matter to gain a little perspective and accessed the oaths required of naturalized citizens in a dozen countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, India, Jamaica, the Philippines, Singapore, Norway and Romania. Turns out they have a number of things in common.
None of them require fidelity to a Jewish state. That’s not the surprising part. What I didn’t expect to discover, however, is that neither do any of them require faithfulness to any other religious, ethnic or social group.
Nor do any of them define their countries in such terms.
What naturalized citizens in these places are required to do is declare their commitment to the state and its laws, and – in some cases – the monarchy. Some also require an undertaking to fulfill one’s duties and obligations, or to abide by the constitution and uphold the values embodied therein – though those values are never defined more specifically than by the terms “democracy” and “human rights.”
Furthermore, none of these countries include in their process of naturalization any phrase that in any way would distinguish between, cause discomfort to or create dissonance for applicants of different ethnic, religious or national origins.
Of course, another thing these countries have in common is that no one is challenging their legitimacy. While not a minor point, and certainly not one to be dismissed cavalierly, the way to counter this vile campaign against our very right to exist is not by providing our adversaries with fuel for their fires. There is a large discerning and undecided public out there – including many thousands of our own youngsters – whose opinions matter to us and who just might be swayed against us by our adoption of a law easily interpreted as racist or undemocratic.
I am also concerned about losing even some of our loyal sponsors with the direction in which things are moving. As one problematic episode after another airs, they are becoming increasingly hesitant about backing our product, and finding it progressively more difficult to stand up for our cause.
For all these reasons, it is urgent that we rally against the passage of this legislation. Though approved by the cabinet it has yet to be approved by the Knesset.
It is not too late to remind Binyamin Netanyahu that if over the last six decades we had invested more in assuring the equality of our minorities and the development of a society that engendered the allegiance of all its citizens, we would have a far more authentically Jewish state than we do at present, and one in which we would not have to worry about legislating loyalty. As he found a way to hold off one impending crisis last spring, perhaps our prime minister can still be persuaded to find a way to hold off the one that is now looming.
In the meantime, please stay tuned in. Anything could happen in the next episode of “As the Jewish World Turns,” and rumors have it that there might even be a role opening up for you.
The writer is the vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive. The opinions expressed here are his own.