Thursday, October 21, 2010

What is fascism?

I read an op-ed piece, "Fascism in Jewish state?" that focused on the issue of whether Israel should require a loyalty oath for new citizens. At one point the article equated Israel's proposed loyalty oath with other forces in the country promoting "hatred and nationalism."

The article got me thinking about what we mean when we describe a person, movement, or idea as fascist. In the article, the word was used to stigmatize those in Israel who believe new citizens ought to swear loyalty to the government as a "Jewish and democratic state." By using the word fascist the writer conjured up powerful memories of the horrors of World War II. But just what is a fascist...and is the term appropriate for Israel's debate over a loyalty oath?

In 1944, during World War II, George Orwell wrote an article "What Is Fascism?" that still rings true. After explaining the many ways the word had been misused, he finally, and almost comically, noted that "almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’." Orwell ended the article with a word of caution that people today would be wise to heed. "All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword."

And this brings me back to the original op-ed piece. The writer appears not to be in favor of Israel adopting a loyalty oath. He's certainly entitled to his opinion. But to imply that a loyalty oath sets a nation on the road to fascism is, I believe, reckless. A loyalty oath alone is not a sign of fascism. The United States requires naturalized citizens to take an Oath of Allegiance. Great Britain also requires its new citizens to take an Oath of Allegiance. So what is the real issue behind the controversy over Israel's loyalty oath for new citizens?

I believe the heart of the matter--something most in the media seem to be missing--is the debate over whether the State of Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state. Requiring a loyalty oath is not tantamount to ethnic cleansing (as suggested by some critics) since the proposed oath does not apply to Arabs who already have Israeli citizenship. And requiring such an oath is not about restricting religious freedom (as some have argued) since the constitution of Israel guarantees religious freedom to Christians and Muslims. No, the real issue is whether a state that is predominantly Jewish in character can be allowed to exist in the Middle East...and whether someone wanting to be a citizen of that state ought to be required to openly acknowledge that fact.

But isn't it offensive to Arabs citizens of Israel for Israel to call itself a Jewish state? Let me answer that with a different question. How does the proposed state of Palestine want to define itself? Here are some citations from the Palestinian Basic Law as amended in 2003.

--In the Introduction, the Basic Law cites Palestinian efforts to have the world "recognize the rights of the Arab Palestinian people and their national entity, on equal footing with other nations."

--Article One states: "Palestine is part of the larger Arab world, and the Palestinian people are part of the Arab nation. Arab unity is an objective that the Palestinian people shall work to achieve."

--Article Four states: "Islam is the official religion in Palestine. The principles of Islamic Shari’a shall be a principal source of legislation. Arabic shall be the official language."

Later, the Law sets forth how the judiciary will render decisions "in the name of the Palestinian Arab people" (Article 97) and how the Public Prosecutor will prosecute cases "in the name of the Palestinian Arab people" (Article 107).

It sounds to me like the Palestinians expect the future state of Palestine to be identified as an Arab state founded on the principles of Islam. If someone wanted to become a citizen of that state, would it be reasonable to expect that person to publicly acknowledge and support the clearly stated principles on which the state was founded? Shouldn't Israel have the same right to expect its citizens to support the principles on which it was founded?

Israel's loyalty oath is an attempt to remind the world that any two-state solution also comes with the clear understanding that one of those two states must be recognized as a Jewish state. That's not fascism, it's equality.

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