Founder of OLAM magazine, OLAM.org and weekly columnist for the Los
Angeles Jewish Journal
Posted: October 21, 2010 04:32 PM
The Loyalty Oath Is a Good Deal
Maybe it's because I was a Jew in an Arab country that I have a
slightly different take on the loyalty oath controversy. Imagine, for
a minute, that your name is Ahmed and you are a gay Palestinian living
in Ramallah. You live in fear of being outed, ostracized, even jailed
and tortured. A few miles away is a Jewish and democratic nation
called Israel. Your partner, who is Arab and lives there, has been
telling you for years that he suffers no discrimination from being
gay. In fact, a few months ago, he danced in the Gay Pride Parade in
Jerusalem with full protection from the Israeli authorities.
Lately, you've been doing research on Google to find out more about
how Israel treats its minorities. You're doing this because since you
were a child, you have been taught that Jews are the "sons of dogs"
who have no connection to this land and are deserving only of hatred.
How could such "sons of dogs" be so respectful of Arab homosexuals?
You learn in your research that Arabs living in Israel enjoy free
health care and welfare benefits; democratic rights, like freedom of
speech, freedom of religion and freedom to vote; full women's rights;
and opportunities to learn at great universities.
You also discover the following items about Israeli Arabs: the
existence of Arab political parties in the Israeli government like
Hadash, Balad and Ra'amTa'al, which have the right to promote even
incendiary things like the Palestinian "right of return" and the
dismantling of Israel's nuclear arsenal; NGOs like Adalah: the Legal
Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, which helps minorities seek
legal redress; Ali Yahya, Israel's Arab ambassador to Greece; Salim
Joubran, Supreme Court justice; and Oscar Abu-Razek, director general
of the Ministry of Interior.
You also learn about Raleb Majadele, the first Arab Cabinet minister
in Israel; Jamal Hakrush, assistant commander in Israel's National
Police; Rana Raslan, the first Arab to win a Miss Israel contest; Bnei
Sakhnin, the first Arab soccer team to win Israel's State Cup; Asala
Shahada, an Arab who won a gold medal at the Maccabiah games; and Majd
el-Haj, an Arab sociology professor at Haifa University who was
promoted to dean of research at the university.
You ask yourself: How could all these Arabs be so successful in a
Jewish state that is supposed to favor Jews and discriminate against
As you research the answer, you come across this finding from a report
of the U.S. State Department: "Most of the Arab states are ruled by
oppressive, dictatorial regimes, which deny their citizens basic
freedoms of political expression, speech, press and due process."
Aha!, you say,maybe that explains why Arabs in Israel are not
clamoring to leave the Jewish state and join their brethren in other
You then find Israel's Declaration of Independence, which affirms the
full legal and human rights of all its citizens, Jew and non-Jew
alike. Because you have been taught to believe that the birth of
Israel is a "catastrophe" and that Jews have no connection to the
land, you are surprised to discover the 3,000-year connection of the
Jewish people to Israel. This helps you understand Israel's Law of
Return, which states that Jews become automatic citizens when they
"return home" to Israel.
Finally, you read about a recent and controversial amendment to
Israel's citizen loyalty oath. The proposed amendment would require
non-Jewish foreigners wishing to become Israeli citizens to declare
loyalty not just to the State of Israel, but to the "Jewish and
democratic" State of Israel.
So you think: I would be able to live as a proud and free homosexual
and enjoy all the other civil rights and benefits in return for taking
a loyalty oath to a "Jewish and democratic" state? Hey, that sounds
like a pretty good deal to me. What's all the fuss about?
The fuss, Ahmed, is that a lot of people think this initiative is
offensive and discriminatory -- that it is OK for a non-Jew to pledge
loyalty to the State of Israel, but not to the "Jewish and democratic"
State of Israel.
So what do I think?
First, I don't get all the hysterics. I might see the problem if the
oath were only to a "Jewish" state, but to a "Jewish and democratic"
state? Doesn't that addition make all the difference in the world?
Isn't it democracy that enables Arab citizens to become Supreme Court
justices, university professors or the second in command of the
A non-Jew gains a lot more by the word "democratic" than he loses by
the word "Jewish." If an Arab man like Ahmed, for example, ever
marries his partner in Tel Aviv and has to make his oath of loyalty to
a "Jewish and democratic" state, he won't be thinking of how Jewish
Israel is, but how democratic it is and respectful of his human right
to enter into a gay marriage.
As a Sephardic Jew, I can tell you that Jews who lived for centuries
as good citizens of Arab countries would have loved nothing more than
to pledge loyalty to a "Muslim and democratic state" in return for the
same freedoms, rights and protections that Arabs enjoy today in
But what about the fact that Jews become automatic citizens and don't
have to take this oath? Isn't that a racist idea? Not according to my
friend Yossi Klein Halevi, who writes in an e-mail from Jerusalem:
" There is a difference between an oleh [one who makes aliyah] who
is repatriating home and a foreigner being naturalized. Many
democracies require loyalty oaths of naturalizing citizens. The point
of a Jewish state is that Jews aren't like naturalizing citizens --
they are olim returning home. That distinction is crucial for
affirming who we are. This is not about racism -- it is about a
reaffirmation of our right to define ourselves as a people returning
If and when the Palestinians create a state, the first law they
are likely to pass will be their version of our law of return,
granting automatic citizenship to returning Palestinians. If an
outsider wants to become a Palestinian citizen, he/she would no doubt
have to go through a longer process.
Personally, whether it's part of a citizenship process or not, I'd
love to see a national pledge of allegiance to a "Jewish and
democratic" Israel. In fact, it ought to become a subject of study in
Israeli schools and universities and part of a national conversation
where every group gets to contribute its thoughts to this work in
Both words -- "Jewish" and "democratic" -- are complicated and
multilayered. Their marriage represents one of the great Jewish ideals
-- the collective project that Jews have come home to after almost
Featuring this ideal in the loyalty oath reminds Israel of its
obligations to all of its citizens, not just to its Jewish ones. As
much as the applicant makes a formal gesture of loyalty, Israel makes
a formal commitment of its democratic promise. The issue of who is
required to take the oath is a fair one, but it shouldn't cloud the
central fact that the oath itself is an especially good deal for
minorities looking for official protection of their democratic rights.
That's why I can't understand the hysterical reaction of many Jews who
have recoiled in shame and horror at this initiative, as if Israel had
just decided to shut down every Arab newspaper or board up every
Yes, Israel could have done a better job of presenting the initiative,
which suffered from awkward timing and its association with Yisrael
Beitenu. But Israel's political clumsiness is even more reason for
Israel supporters to reaffirm and defend the country's moral standing.
Despite all its faults, and despite being in a permanent state of war
with enemies at its doorstep, Israel is still, by far, the most open
and civil society in the Middle East. Think about that. The best place
for an Arab to be free and successful in the Middle East is in a
Jewish state under siege by Arabs. Incredible, no?
If Israel were smart, it would initiate a massive PR effort promoting
the freedoms, rights and opportunities that Arabs get in Israel that
they can never get in other Arab countries. It would show the world
that its loyalty oath is a shining light in the Middle East cesspool.
A good place to start would be with Arabs like Ahmed from Ramallah,
who dreams of signing an oath that would free him to be gay and dance
in public with his Arab-Israeli partner next year in Jerusalem.