Analysis: Rage over 'racist' law is misplaced

By Anshel Pfeffer, October 14, 2010
A policeman checks the ID of Israeli Arabs, who will not have to pledge their allegiance under the new legislation

A policeman checks the ID of Israeli Arabs, who will not have to pledge their allegiance under the new legislation

The newly amended Citizenship Law, approved by the cabinet on Sunday and requiring all foreign non-Jewish citizens wishing to become Israeli to pledge allegiance to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, is polarising opinion in Israel and across the world.

The right claim it is a basic patriotic gesture that affirms what is already written in Israel's Declaration of Independence. The left cry that this is another sign of the erosion of democracy in Israel, basing their criticism on the very same declaration. The political leadership of the Israeli Arabs lambasts the amendment as "racist" and the Western media seems to agree.

Certainly, the legislation was driven to the fore by Yisrael Beiteinu's leader, Avigdor Lieberman, who campaigned in last year's poll under the slogan "No Loyalty - No Citizenship", targeting Israeli Arabs as a subversive element.

But the law will apply only to the handful of non-Jews who go through the gruelling process of becoming Israeli via the Citizenship Law. These are usually the partners of Israelis, guest workers who fit a list of stringent criteria and the Ethiopian Falashmura, who claim to be descended from Jews but have to undergo Orthodox conversion after arriving in Israel.

The law has no effect on Israeli Arabs who are citizens by birth, and since the only foreigners who can automatically become Israeli are Jews anyway, through the Law of Return, the pledge merely underlines an already existing situation.

So not only would the law be a hollow achievement for Mr Lieberman, the only reason it is being passed is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hopes that he will not leave the coalition if settlement building is stopped again.

What's more, the cabinet decided to empower Justice Minister Yaakov Ne'eman to consider the exact wording of the allegiance, which means the final version of the amendment will be voted on "over the next few weeks". In Israeli politics, that could mean never.

The problem is the law's PR effect. Dan Meridor, one of Mr Netanyahu's closest ministerial colleagues, said: "This law does not solve any problem and only causes trouble for Israel with its Arab citizens and the world."

...But UK rabbis warn of dangers

The loyalty oath proposal has drawn criticism from across the religious spectrum in the UK.

Rabbi Barry Marcus, who holds the Israel portfolio in Chief Rabbi Sacks's cabinet, said: "This politically motivated decision is ill-advised. Better to educate than to legislate." Citing verse from Ecclesiastes, "it is better not to have made an oath", he said that Jews generally had an "almost inbred aversion to oaths of any kind".

Reform head Rabbi Tony Bayfield said: "Does it contribute anything to the confidence and sense of belonging of Israel's Palestinian minority? No. Does it bring satisfaction to those in Israel who find equality with Palestinians unpalatable? Yes. Yet another blow to the peace process."

Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of Liberal Judaism, warned that the law could "lead to the marginalisation of non-Jewish Israelis". He added that it "may not be in the long-term interests of
a stable and cohesive Israel".

But a spokesman for the Zionist Federation pointed out: "Many countries, including the US and the UK, have similar pledges."


Last updated: 4:17pm, October 14 2010