A fearful separatism in the Middle East
The new Israeli loyalty oath is not a product of Zionist racism but of Israel’s politics of insecurity.
If critics of Israel needed any more proof that it is a supremely racist state, then it seemed to come this week in the form of a new loyalty oath. Approved by the Israeli cabinet on Sunday as an amendment to the Citizenship Act, the oath requires all non-Jews applying for Israeli citizenship to swear allegiance to a ‘Jewish and democratic’ Israel. It has been leapt upon by critics as evidence of Israel’s backward nationalism.
And yes, the oath is definitely discriminatory. But why is its introduction so shocking to outsiders? After all, it is only a logical outcome of the separatist politics that have been promoted by Western and international institutions since the 1993 Oslo Accords.
The Israeli cabinet’s approval of the allegiance bill, which must still be voted on by parliament, is seen as a victory for foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman. The loyalty oath was a cornerstone of his right-wing party Yisrael Beiteinu’s campaigning during last year’s election. But the bill has drawn stern criticism, not only from outsiders, but also from people across the Israeli political spectrum.
The deputy prime minister and minister of intelligence services, Dan Meridor, a member of the ruling Likud party, warned that the oath will cause tensions within Israel and mar the country’s international image. The Arab minority views it as a provocation aimed at making them second-class citizens. In Tel Aviv on Sunday, more than 100 Israeli artists, writers and intellectuals protested against it.
The protesters, along with many of Israel’s critics in the West, see the oath as a racist, even fascist initiative, as an erosion of democracy and civil liberties. They say a series of new bills are stigmatising dissent and criminalising freedom of expression and conscience in Israel. These include loyalty oaths for Knesset members and film crews, fines and prison sentences for those who deny the State of Israel or promote boycotts against Israel, and the withdrawal of public funds for anyone who commemorates Nakba Day (‘the day of the catastrophe’, as Palestinians refer to Israel’s Independence Day).
At the Daily Telegraph, a senior editor described the introduction of the loyalty oath as ‘one of those head-in-hands, stomach-churning moments, akin to when a lover finally shuts the door. You’re left in shock, beliefs awry.’ He was shocked not only because the oath goes against the principles of tolerance and minority rights, but because it is, to him, a bitterly ironic reminder of how Jews were hounded in Europe for refusing to swear allegiance to Christian rulers.
But, as discriminatory and reactionary as the new Israeli loyalty oath may be, it is fundamentally a nationalist measure, not a denial of religious freedom. It does not apply to non-Jews who are already living in Israel, only to those seeking to be naturalised. Of course, in exempting Jewish citizenship candidates, who are naturalised under the law of return, from the pledge, it has an additional discriminatory element which is not present in the citizenship pledges and loyalty oaths of countries like Britain. Yet Britain’s requirement that all foreigners who want to become UK citizens must first pledge allegiance to the monarchy and her heirs – a requirement which is not made of citizens born in Britain – is also a form of discrimination. In this respect, the Israeli oath is not unique.
Pointing this out no doubt leaves one open to being criticised for nitpicking or, worse, defending Israeli racism. But these things are not irrelevant because it is important to see the new Israeli loyalty oath for what it truly is. It does not represent a re-invention of fascism or Vichy laws in a Jewish state. No, what is truly ‘stomach churning’ about the loyalty pledge is that it is only a more brash expression of mainstream attitudes towards Israeli-Arab relations today – attitudes which increasingly demand a clear separation between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. Those who condemn the oath as discriminatory and fascistic while at the same time demanding that Israelis and Arabs enforce a strictly regulated two-state solution appear to see no irony in their moral indignation.
The loyalty bill, like other new bills which draw divisions between the rights and relations of Arabs and Jews, is actually in line with the partitionist, separatist logic of those foreign powers which over the past 15 years have been insisting that borders and territories in the Middle East be drawn along ethnic lines. Their two-state solution, and their demand that this solution be permanently policed by peacekeepers, also represents an implacable separation of Arabs and Jews.
Also, the oath and the host of other illiberal bills awaiting approval by the government do not show that Israel is an increasingly arrogant, macho, nationalist state. On the contrary, they highlight Israel’s profound sense of insecurity today.
Critics of Avigdor Lieberman believe the 52-year-old is fashioning his foreign policy on his former experience as a nightclub bouncer in his native Moldova. Sure, he is a hardline, straight-talking, un-PC drama queen, yet despite his anti-Arab rhetoric, Lieberman is not averse to giving up bits of land to Arabs if it means permanent separation from them.
The current government is not behaving like a macho security guard who wants to kick out or exclude anyone who misbehaves – rather its actions encapsulate the insecurity and the victim mentality which permeates contemporary Israeli society. This is Israel’s new politics of insecurity, the rise of new forms of fearful separatism.
In Israel today, there is a widespread sense of victimisation, a siege mentality and existential fear, which is in stark contrast to the confident Zionism of the past. Today, Israel is a defensive society, happiest to erect walls around itself, to put the Palestinians out of sight and out of mind, to batten down the hatches and hide rather than pursue an ‘aggressive, expansionist policy’, as its critics claim.
It is fundamentally this fearful separatism, which the ‘peace process’ has helped to entrench and validate, which has led to discriminatory and corrosive policies such as the loyalty oath.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.