Monday, October 11, 2010

Israel is a Jewish State

Two news items from Israel surfacing today seem to me to be related. In the first, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced he had offered to extend Israel's moratorium on building in the disputed territories for an additional two months if the Palestinian Authority would publicly acknowledge Israel as a Jewish State. The Palestinians refused. The second news item concerns the proposed "loyalty oath" for new citizens being debated within Israel. So how are these items related?

At the center of the matter on both is the question of whether or not the Jewish people have the right to a state in which they can have their own national identity...and the question about how this impacts the 20% of Israel's population that is not Jewish. Can Israel be a Jewish state and still grant full rights to its non-Jewish population?

The framers of Israel's loyalty oath have made it clear that the oath is pledging loyalty to a "Jewish and democratic state." From its very beginning Israel has recognized the rights of its non-Jewish citizens. From my travels throughout the Middle East I believe there is more freedom of religion--and more civil rights for minorities--in Israel than in any other country in the region. Yes, the state is Jewish in character. (The Star of David on the flag makes this clear!) But it's also a state that has sought to promote democratic values in ways that cannot be matched by other countries in the region. For example, from its very founding, Hebrew and Arabic were designated as the two official languages of the country.

But doesn't a loyalty oath sound overbearing, like some relic from the Cold War? I don't think so. Growing up, I stood with my classmates and recited the Pledge of Allegiance: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of American and to the republic for which it stands...." The Pledge of Allegiance is a loyalty oath, and I'm proud to have recited it. When someone becomes a naturalized citizen of the United States, they are required to pledge an oath of allegiance to this country. That oath says, in part, "I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same...."

I personally don't see anything wrong with asking someone to declare his or her loyalty to the state as a requirement for obtaining citizenship. If our government requires all naturalized citizens to swear an oath of allegiance as part of the process for obtaining citizenship, can't Israel expect the same level of commitment on the part of its naturalized citizens, especially those who are not Jewish?

Once one gets past the rhetoric, I think the issue over the existence of a Jewish state--and the debate of the loyalty oath--is rather straightforward. Israel is a Jewish state and should be recognized as such by the Palestinians. Israel has as much right to identify itself as a Jewish state as Iran does to call itself an Islamic republic...or Saudi Arabia does to emblazon the shahadah (Islamic declaration of faith) on its flag. And just like the United States, Israel has a right to expect those wanting the privileges of citizenship to be willing to declare their loyalty to the state granting them those privileges.

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