Monday 25 October 2010

The Issues Surrounding the Loyalty Oath

The decision by the Israeli cabinet to approve an amendment to the loyalty oath for new immigrants to Israel has created a great deal of controversy, and occupied newspaper columns all over the world. It is the timing of its proposal, the proposed wording of the oath as well as the fact that it currently only applies to some immigrants while not applying to others which has generated the interest and criticism.

A loyalty oath in itself is not a strange or unusual concept. Many countries around the world, including the USA, require new citizens to pledge their loyalty to their adopted country. Until now, Israel required some of its new citizens to pledge loyalty to the state. The main reason for this is the fact that the bulk of the new immigrants have taken up their citizenship under the Law of Return, and they are not required to make the loyalty oath. The Law of Return allows anybody with one Jewish grandparent to immediately claim citizenship of Israel without any naturalisation requirement. So why was it deemed necessary to suddenly amend the loyalty oath at this time?

It is clear that every country has the right to make changes as circumstances demand them. It is interesting to study how America's "Pledge of Allegiance" was initially introduced more than 100 years after the country's independence, and how its wording has been changed four times over the years. So, the idea of amending a loyalty oath is not unique. Like with most things in the Middle East, however, the timing is not coincidental. In Israel's case, the amendment to the loyalty oath has come out of the latest events in the peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

The proposed amendment to the loyalty oath will require new immigrants to pledge loyalty to the "Jewish and democratic State of Israel". The reference to a Jewish state has been added as part of the currently proposed amendment. The issue of recognising Israel as a Jewish state has become a central issue in the ongoing peace talks. Prime minister Netanyahu has insisted that the Palestinians not only acknowledge Israel's right to exist, but recognise her right to exist as a Jewish state as part of the peace agreement. The Palestinians have skirted around this issue for many years, and continue to show an unwillingness to give an undertaking in this form.

The concept of Israel being a Jewish state is not entirely new. Both the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and the UN Partition Plan adopted in 1947 called for the establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people. The Declaration of Independence in 1948 also declared the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael, the State of Israel. Surely nothing could have been clearer than this.

Since independence, Israel has continued to operate as a Jewish state, and as a homeland for the Jewish people. Israel's laws relating to marriage and divorce are based upon Jewish religious law. The working week is Sunday to Friday in line with the commandments in the Torah, the Jewish holy bible. There can be absolutely no doubt that the intention continues to be the same as the one expressed at independence i.e. that Israel will be a Jewish state.

So why the attempts to deny this on the part of the Palestinians? It seems as if being prepared to make this "concession" may harm their negotiating position on the return to Israel of the thousands of Palestinian refugees whose predecessors fled their homes upon Israel's independence in 1948. These people continue to be housed in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, in the West Bank and in Gaza on the promise that they will be allowed to return to Israel to reclaim their homes when a peace agreement is reached. The act of recognising Israel as being a Jewish state means that there can never be an agreement to house millions of non-Jews in Israel who may challenge the Jewish majority.

By proposing a change to the loyalty oath, Netanyahu has tried to utilise all the tools at his disposal to demonstrate to the Palestinians how seriously he takes the issue of Israel being recognised as a Jewish state. Even though this tactic seems to be fairly extreme and has been interpreted by many to be racist, the prime minister has the support of a large section of the population. Finally, a prime minister of Israel has been prepared to stand up in front of the people who have attempted to annihilate the Jews for so many years and drive us into the sea. Finally, he is prepared to say that if you wish to be recognised for what you are, you need to recognise us and our country for what we are. Nothing less will do. The reluctance on the part of the Palestinians says it all.

The amended loyalty oath will probably never be adopted. It seems not to have the support of the majority of the Knesset, and perhaps it is just as well. Despite debates about whether it should, in its revised form, apply to Jews as well as non-Jews, the truth is that this act will probably not bring the recognition nor the peace that we wish for. By raising this issue into the public domain in such a visible way, however, it has brought focus on Israel's continued desire to be acknowledged as a Jewish state more than 62 years after world voted in favour of this at the UN.

Then like now, the Arab nations are not prepared to accept this fact. They pursued war on that occasion in the belief that the Jews could be driven out. Now they sit at the negotiating table in the begrudging knowledge that the Jews are here to stay. Somehow, they can still not find it in themselves to openly admit and acknowledge the right of the Jewish state to exist alongside their own state. They would rather not have a state than be forced to concede to this. But this is what peace agreements are made of, and peace is not possible when you refuse to acknowledge the nature and character of the other party. Denial has brought war. Only acknowledgement can lay the basis for peace.

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