"Loyalty Legislation" and Israel's Arab Minority

Within the last few days, three different members of Knesset put forward proposed bills dealing—in effect—with the interrelated questions of loyalty and legitimacy: Are Israel’s Arab citizens “loyal,” and if not, can their political role be diminished? Two of the movers behind these bills belong to Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party, another to the Jewish Home Party, a reconstituted version of the National Religious Party; both parties are members of the governing coalition and their ideas seem to resonate with some within Likud and many outside it. They advocate:
  • Swearing an oath of loyalty—a pledge of allegiance—as a prerequisite for citizenship, and refusal to do so as reason enough to deny citizenship to those who already hold it. Military service would be another key criterion. Although the latter issue would apply to Israel’s sizable population of ultra-Orthodox Jews who find ways to avoid the draft, the main thrust of the loyalty law is clearly aimed at the Arab minority.
  • Making acts of disloyalty, such as disparaging national symbols, punishable—a position reminiscent of the U.S. debate over flag burning;
  • Prohibiting the practice of mourning Israel’s independence (which almost immediately came to be known as the “Nakba Law,” after the word—meaning a catastrophe, in Arabic—used by Palestinians to describe, from their point of view, what befell them in 1948). Once again, Arabs are not the only ones in Israel for whom the “Zionist” Independence Day is a bitter moment; similar displays are common among radical Haredi groups, such as Neturei Karta. And for most Arabs, the moment of grief is marked on “Nakba Day,” May 15 on the Gregorian calendar, and not by the Hebrew date. It is clear, however, that this is another attempt to disqualify the legitimacy of Israeli Arabs.
As it happens, pieces of legislation moved by members of the coalition require prior approval by the Cabinet Committee on Legislation; and there these particular initiatives were brought to a halt, for the time being, amid great public debate. Advocates argued that the U.S. administers a pledge (yes, but only to new citizens); denigrators drew dark parallels with Europe in the twenties. Former Meretz leader Yossi Beilin publicly threatened to challenge the loyalty tests and even go to jail, if need be (a somewhat grandiose posture, since no such sentences are envisioned—“just” the denial of the right to vote). Labor Party activists urged their leader, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, to take a stand, even though in other respects, such as commitment to the Road Map and ultimately to the two-state solution, he has found common ground with Foreign Minister Lieberman. At the end of the day, the resistance is set to grow; Lieberman will be able to tell his voters that he did his best—but the laws are unlikely to pass.

This will not make the dual problems go away, however. They are bound to linger even if the present bout of “loyalty legislation” dissipates. On the one hand, there are real and serious questions that arise as to the basic loyalty of Israeli Arabs—or rather, of their political leaders, who often invest most of their efforts in supporting the cause of Hezbollah or Hamas rather than in obtaining better terms for their fellow citizens. This pattern has done much, in recent years, to undermine the position of Israeli liberal voices. On the other hand, there is an alarming aspect to the very fact that some Israeli political figures are willing to play for popular sentiment and, in the process, seem to lose sight of basic international—and Jewish—norms of civic conduct. The challenges are real, but the political reactions on both sides are, to a certain extent, designed to exacerbate the conflict.

Can useful lessons be learned, over time? Possibly—if Israeli Arab politicians, beyond their shrill response (“fascists!” “racists!”) to the proposed bills, do give a thought to the deeper causes that made such initiatives popular among many Israeli Jews; and if politicians on the Jewish political right, who claim to speak for the Jewish people, stop and ponder that by taking such a stance against a minority, they undercut the very legitimacy of Jews as a minority group elsewhere. Sadly, the growing insularity of Israelis, and their blindness toward the existential condition of the other half of the Jewish people, do play a role in creating the present crisis.

Looking further into the future, we must not be naïve about the magnitude of the challenge: Ideas that deny the legitimacy of the Zionist project and the right of Jews to self-determination have indeed taken hold among many—often among the young intellectual elite—Israeli Arabs, or as they call themselves, the “1948 Palestinians.” The worry about their loyalty is not baseless. The point is, however, that the sledgehammer of legislation is probably the wrong tool here. A much more subtle, nuanced, and complex strategy is needed, one which would include the encouragement of moderate voices (and, following Obama, a clear message that we do not see Islam per se as an enemy, nor do we seek to deny Israeli citizens their rights) side by side with stern measures against those, such as the Hamas sympathizers in the “Northern wing” (the more extremist branch) of the Islamic Movement in Israel, who cross the threshold from expressions of collective identity and memory to active rejection of the authority of the state.

Busy as it is with the burdens of the Iranian threat, a problematic debate with the Obama Administration over the settlements, and the uncertain future of the economy, the Israeli leadership cannot put this issue on the back burner and leave it to wait for better days.
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