Critics: Israel loyalty oath undermines pluralism

AP News
Posted: Oct 11, 2010 9:34 AM
Critics: Israel loyalty oath undermines pluralism

Israel's government has drawn fire for approving a bill that would require new citizens to pledge a loyalty oath to a "Jewish and democratic" state, an effort critics say is just the latest of a string of recent moves that are undermining pluralism and stifling dissent.

Arab lawmakers called the bill, approved by the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday, racist because it will not be required of Jews being naturalized. In general, the Arab minority _ making up one in five Israelis _ view the oath as a provocation aimed at further making them second-class citizens in a country where they already feel discriminated against.

Defenders, however, say Israel must insist on its Jewish identity, particularly at a time when it is under pressure to make concessions in peace negotiations with the Palestinians, aimed at creating an independent Palestinian state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the bill, which must still be voted on by parliament, reflected the essence of Israel at a time when many are trying to blur the connection between the Jewish people and their homeland.

"The state of Israel is the national state of the Jewish people and is a democratic state in which all its citizens _ Jews and non-Jews _ enjoy full equal rights," he said. "Whoever wants to join us, has to recognize us."

Peace negotiations are not the only thing making Israel's nationalists feel defensive. Liberal Israelis say a series of factors has built up to a siege mentality that is translating into hard-line pressure for everyone to rally around the flag. In the resulting atmosphere of polarization, liberal Israelis say criticism of the state or its policies is being muzzled.

Among those factors is a U.N. report that accused Israel of committing war crimes during a military offensive in the Gaza Strip early last year. Israelis overwhelmingly feel the report was unfair.

Netanyahu's government is also smarting over harsh international criticism over a deadly naval raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla and suspicions that Israeli agents killed a Palestinian militant in Dubai after stealing the identities of some of its own citizens.

Nationalists are promoting a bill that would shut down groups that provide information that could be used to support war crimes allegations against Israel in court cases raised in other countries. Another would impose fines and entry bans on supporters of an anti-Israel boycott.

Earlier this month, controversy erupted after a high school principal used of an unapproved textbook that presents the Palestinian grief over Israel's 1948 creation. Palestinians mourn it as the "nakba" _ the catastrophe _ because hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled from homes in what is now Israel. The principal faces possible disciplinary action.

Another bill that has drawn criticism recently would deny state funding to groups that mourn the "nakba."

Although it is unclear whether such bills will pass in parliament, they do resonate across Israeli society, a recent poll suggests.

More than half of the 500 Jewish respondents said human rights groups that expose unethical Israeli conduct should not be allowed to operate freely, and that Israeli citizens who support sanctions or boycotts against Israel should be punished. The Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace, which commissioned the poll, did not provide a margin of error.

In July, Israel's internal security service called in for questioning a former air force pilot who has become an outspoken critic of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. The ex-pilot, Yonatan Shapira, later accused Israeli naval commandoes of roughing him up this month when taking him off a boat that sailed to Gaza to draw attention to Israel's blockade of the territory.

Naomi Chazan, a professor who has come under fire from ultranationalists who accuse her of being "anti-Israel," said the antagonism is dangerous.

"One of the most important things for Israel is that it allows democratic criticism," she said.

Government spokesman Mark Regev rejected claims that dissent is being quieted. Israel "is a free and open society and we're proud of it," he said. "Alone in the region, our press is truly free, our courts are truly independent. The votes of people count. Our labor is allowed to organize freely. There is rule of law."

Sunday's loyalty oath amendment was spearheaded by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party has played on the perceived disloyalty of Israel's Arab citizens. It has been widely speculated in Israel that Netanyahu's backing of the bill was intended to win Lieberman's backing of concessions in peace talks, such as a possible extension of restrictions on West Bank settlement building.

The Cabinet rejected an earlier Yisrael Beitenu proposal that would have required all current citizens to take the loyalty oath and stripped citizenship from those who refused.

The watered-down version approved by the government for parliament to vote on requires the oath from new, non-Jewish citizens _ making it largely symbolic since few non-Jews apply for Israeli citizenship. Most of those who do are spouses of Arab citizens.

Though it would not force them to profess their loyalty, the bill appeared aimed squarely at Arab Israelis.

Ahmad Tibi, an Arab lawmaker, said the bill is "limiting democracy in Israel and deepening the prejudice against its Arab minority."

Unlike Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel's Arabs are citizens, with the right to vote, travel freely and to collect generous social benefits. But they have long complained of second-class status.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel lobbied the government to quash the citizenship law, but to no avail.

"The amendment is but the latest example of antidemocratic laws that ostracize and delegitimize minority views, particularly those of Arab citizens," it wrote to Netanyahu ahead of Sunday's vote.