If there is one thing Arabs and Israelis seem to agree upon it is the hopelessness of the current peace process. Since the second intifada, Israelis have frequently complained that they lack a credible partner for peace. Now, the Israeli government appears determined to prove that Palestinians have the same problem, that Israel is hostage to fanatics and acting in bad faith. Israel’s latest gambit—demanding that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state in exchange for a brief freeze on settlement building—may not seem unreasonable on the surface. But as the country’s own uproar over a proposed loyalty oath shows, there is a huge difference between acknowledging the right of Jews to live in Israel, and defining Israel as a “Jewish state.”
When the Israeli cabinet approved an amendment to its citizenship law Sunday demanding that non-Jewish immigrants take a loyalty oath, the reaction wasn’t just fury among Arabs. It was also horror and despair among Israeli liberals. Yitzhak Herzog, a Labor member of the Knesset and a cabinet official, warned on Israeli radio, “There is a whiff of fascism on the margins of Israeli society.” A writer on the Haaretz website disagreed: “Isaac Herzog is wrong when he says that fascism lurks at the fringes of Israeli society. It is now in the mainstream.” But if Israeli liberals consider it outrageous to expect their own prospective citizens to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” how can anyone demand the same thing of the embattled Palestinian leadership?
“There is a whiff of fascism on the margins of Israeli society.”
To an outsider, it may seem slightly odd that the loyalty oath issue—and not, say, the continuing blockade of Gaza, or the recent jailing of Palestinian nonviolent activist Abdallah Abu Rahma—elicits such alarm about Israel’s moral standing. The number of people the oath will directly affect is small, and it is in many ways a rather technical and semantic matter. Yet the new law does more than threaten the already imperiled peace talks. It also challenges liberal Israelis’ fundamental sense of what their country is about, and how it balances religion and democracy.
Proposed by far-right Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the loyalty oath would require non-Jews wishing to become citizens of Israel—largely people from the occupied territories who marry Israeli Arabs—to swear allegiance to the country as a “Jewish and democratic state.” It changes the status quo, in which all new citizens have to pledge allegiance to “the state of Israel and its laws.” Eventually, Lieberman hopes to go much further, extending the oath to Israel’s existing Arab citizens—about a fifth of the population—and revoking the citizenship of those who refuse it.
The most charitable explanation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s support for Lieberman’s initiative is that it’s an attempt to appease the right now so he can sell concessions later—in other words, that he’s preparing the ground for a deal with the Palestinians. But his support of the oath, followed by his insistence on preemptive Palestinian recognition of Israel’s Jewish character, is making such a deal, already extremely unlikely, ever more remote.
Indeed, talks are on the edge of collapse—if not over it. “Netanyahu knows in advance that the Palestinians won’t accept this demand,” a Fatah spokesman told the Jerusalem Post. “This new condition is aimed at abolishing the right of return for the refugees and expelling the more than one million Palestinians living in Israel.” Even if one accepts that Israel can never allow a mass return of Palestinian refugees, the concern about Palestinians living in Israel is clearly legitimate. Meanwhile, Moshe Ya'alon, the Minister of Strategic Affairs, told Army Radio, "There is no chance in the coming years for a peace agreement with the Palestinians.”
Naturally, the loyalty oath is an outrage to Israel’s Arab minority. One Arab Knesset member called it “a missile intended to blow up the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.” And at a breakfast meeting Tuesday, Herzog said the new law “seems to be kind of shunning [Arabs] out of the consensus.” Israeli Arabs, after all, know that Lieberman wants to expel them. Now they’re watching the government begin the process of implementing his redefinition of Israeli citizenship.
Israeli liberals find the oath alarming for two reasons. First, it would reify the country’s discrimination against its non-Jewish citizens. Second, many liberals and centrists see it as a blow against secularism. There’s a subtle but immensely important division between the idea of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, and Israel as a Jewish state in the religious sense. The loyalty oath is seen as evidence that Israel is becoming the latter.
“Definitely there is a big camp in Israel that would want some of the Jewish elements to become a permanent element of the state,” says Oren Magnezy, a longtime Ariel Sharon staffer who now chairs a consulting group. Magnezy, obviously no leftist, nonetheless emphasizes that Israel’s founding vision was secular, and he sees that secularism as threatened by the growing religious right within Israel. “In a world that’s polarizing, and an Israel that is polarizing, we are heading toward a camp that’s saying well, we’re a Jewish state, and that means A, B, C, D, and there is no right to choose,” he says. “Freedom of choice is being slowly taken away.”
The other, often unspoken, reason the loyalty oath elicits such anxieties among Israeli liberals is that it brings the tension between liberalism and Zionism to the fore, and exposes the near-impossibility of a state simultaneously privileging Jews and offering full equality to all citizens.
“The reality is that there is a differentiation between Jews and non-Jews in coming to the country, and that’s the meaning of the Jewish state,” says Tamar Zandberg, a left-wing member of Tel Aviv’s city council. “But now, you’re shouting it. For me, it reflects [Israel’s] insecurity complex… If we’re so secure that we have that legitimacy, that we have the right to be here, and there were unique historical circumstances, then why do we need to change [the law]? It means that something is wrong within us.
“It means a state that’s no longer even trying to strike a balance between religious tribalism and pluralism. And it means that peace will be as far away as ever."
Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.