Is Israel becoming a fascist country? Seemingly that question would only be raised by someone hostile to Israel or ignorant. The ignorant could, for example, be informed of Freedom House’s high rating of Israel as a free country, or of the fact that this year Israel was accepted into the exclusively democratic OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development).
Yet an article posted last week on ynetnews.com — an English portal closely connected to Israel’s largest daily, Yediot Aharonot — is called “Fascism in Jewish state?” At the top it features a photo of two well-known fascists. One is Mussolini, the other … guess who?
The article, penned by leftist journalist Uri Misgav, goes on to quote mostly far-left Israeli academics who confirm that … yes, fascism is just around the corner in Israel. Israeli readers of Yediot, where the column first appeared in Hebrew, know that Israeli academia, particularly humanities and social-science departments, is a hotbed of far-left views. In Israel’s 2009 elections, the party representing such views, Meretz, won all of three Knesset seats out of 120.
Ynetnews.com’s readers from all over the world, though, may well not know those things.
The site, like Yediot itself, presents a wide range of Israeli opinion, right, left, and center — fair enough. But Israel as an imminently fascist state, with Hitler and Mussolini gazing sternly at us from the top of the page?
And what prompted this excrescence by Uri Misgav? Why, the fact that, as he explains:
On October 10th, 2010, Israel’s government decided to obligate non-Jewish naturalized citizens to pledge allegiance to a Jewish, democratic state. The debate was not fierce, with 22 ministers endorsing the proposal and only eight voting against it.
In other words, the vote was by the cabinet, not the Knesset, and could only become law if the Knesset ratified it. Meanwhile, two things have happened.
First, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the justice minister to redraft the proposed loyalty oath so that it would apply to Jews, as well as non-Jews, seeking Israeli citizenship. Second, it was reported that the bill, at least at this stage, wouldn’t pass the Knesset in any case, with only 56 out of 120 MKs supporting it.
But why the fuss in the first place? Currently, people applying for Israeli citizenship have to pledge “loyalty to the state of Israel.” Why does extending that to “Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” cause a ruckus both in Israel, where the left calls it fascist, and abroad, where critics have called it vile, racist, and the like?
To the extent that the criticism from abroad isn’t just of the de rigeur Israel-bashing type, it often reflects a misconception. Pledging loyalty to Israel as a “Jewish state” sounds, to many, like forcing people to pledge loyalty to Judaism as a religion.
To Israelis, however, “Jewish state” has a primarily national connotation and encompasses everything from ultra-religious to ultra-secular Jews. Muslims, Christians, and members of other non-Jewish religions in Israel have full religious freedom, and the oath would do nothing to change that. It would only require immigrants to avow that Israel is a Jewish — and democratic — state, the nation-state of the Jewish people that grants full rights to non-Jewish citizens.
Denying that Israel is a Jewish state means opposing its existence, and is incompatible with loyalty.If Israel ceases being Jewish, it ceases being Israel.
And the other reason why the loyalty oath evokes such outrage is that it’s associated, and was probably originated by, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman — now the chief bête noire and hate-figure both for Israel’s left and for many abroad. In an article posted on PJM on Saturday, Stephanie L. Freid writes that Lieberman is “widely perceived as an embarrassment,” and quotes Bradley Burston, a far-left columnist for Israel’s leftist daily Haaretz, asking:
Is anyone on the mainstream Jewish right — anyone at all — willing to speak in defense of Avigdor Lieberman?
The answer is yes, and the question reflects either Burston’s actual ignorance or willful ignorance. Here’s a member of the mainstream Israeli right advising that we “listen to Lieberman”; here’s another one praising his candor and courage; here’s even a not-so-right-wing Israeli columnist writing: “In praise of Lieberman.”
And as I’ve elaborated, the issues that Lieberman raises regarding the loyalty of Israel’s Arab minority are unfortunately real. Just a few examples: while Druze and some Muslim Bedouin Israelis serve in the Israel Defense Forces, the vast majority of Muslim-Arab Israelis refuse to perform even civilian national service. A 2007 poll found 64 percent of Israeli Arabs denying Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish-Zionist state. Also that year an Israeli academic and former adviser to Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon told a conference that Israeli Arabs have “a consensus view … to destroy the national Jewish project.”
That is not to say Israeli Arabs are necessarily disloyal or a lost cause as a community. But when Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state is under attack both at home and abroad, an oath requiring loyalty to it as a Jewish state makes sense. It also dovetails with Netanyahu’s highlighting of the Jewish-state theme in the ongoing political maneuvering vis-à-vis the Palestinians.
Surrounding the “Jewish and democratic state” issue with epithets, hysteria, and distortions helps nothing. Whether or not it will eventually become law, the revised oath is a reasonable initiative by a country demanding what every country demands of its citizens — loyalty.