Recent developments in Israel indicate a steady movement away from the free and open society it proclaims itself to be.
In October, the Israeli cabinet approved a draft amendment to the country’s citizenship law that calls for non-Jews seeking to become citizens to pledge loyalty to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state."
The vote was 22 to 8, with the five ministers belonging to the Labor Party, the only center-left element of a mostly right-leaning coalition, joining in opposition with three ministers from the conservative Likud Party.
Prior to the vote, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu defended the amendment, telling his cabinet, "There is broad agreement in Israel on the Jewish identity and the democracy of the state of Israel; this is the foundation of our existence here. Anyone who would like to join us needs to recognize this."
Candidates for naturalization currently swear an oath of allegiance to the state, without elaboration. Many Israelis–”Arabs and Jews alike–”said they felt the amendment was discriminatory not least because, as currently written, it would apply only to non-Jews who want to become naturalized citizens. Those are mainly Arabs from abroad who marry Arab citizens of Israel. The amendment would not apply to Jews or those of Jewish descent, who immigrate to Israel under the country’s Law of Return.
In the opinion of Minister of Welfare and Social Services Isaac Herzog, a Labor member of the cabinet, the amendment was one of a series of steps in recent years that "borders on fascism. Israel is on a slippery slope."
Likud ministers Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan voted against the amendment. The Hebrew Web site Ynet quoted Meridor as saying after the vote, "The law is harmful and causes damage."
Stung by all the criticism, Israel’s justice minister, Yaakov Neeman, who drafted the amendment, proposed that it should also apply to Jewish immigrants granted automatic citizenship under the Law of Return. Critics argue, however, that even if this were the case, it will add to the sense of alienation from the state felt by many Arab citizens, who make up 20 percent of Israel’s population.
Retired Supreme Court Justice Abdel Rahman-Zuabi, the first Arab to serve on Israel’s highest court, told Israel Radio that if the amendment passes "there will be two countries in the world that in my opinion are racist: Iran, which is an Islamic state, and Israel, which is the Jewish state."
The amendment is meant to fulfill a promise made by Netanyahu in his coalition agreement with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu Party. Lieberman’s last election campaign included the slogans "No citizenship without loyalty" and "Only Lieberman understands Arabs."
Lieberman and other right-wing coalition members, like Eli Yishai, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, have called the amendment a first step in loyalty legislation they plan to seek.
Critics both in Israel and abroad are bothered by the exclusionary implications of the new wording, which threatens to further alienate Arab citizens of Israel. Ten years ago, in October 2000, at the beginning of the second intifada, Israeli police snipers killed 12 Arab Israelis in demonstrations in northern Israel. The Or Commission established to investigate the killings concluded that the government needed to "erase the tarnish of discrimination against the Arab citizens" and called for steps to establish "real equality" between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.
"The issue is not the oath per se, but what the oath demands–”a pledge of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state," notes Dov Waxman, a political science professor at Baruch College and the City University of New York. "This is controversial because many Arab citizens of Israel believe that as long as Israel defines itself in this manner, they are doomed to remain effectively second-class citizens. They also fear that what is now being asked of new immigrants will soon be asked of them, too. This is a very understandable concern."
What causes the oath to deviate most from those of other countries is the inclusion of the word "Jewish." Israel would be unique in singling out a religious identity for the state. Ironically, those American Jewish groups most vocal in demanding a complete separation of church and state in the United States–”such as the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith and the Anti-Defamation League–”thus far have remained silent about the new oath. Other Jewish voices, however, have been harshly critical.
In its Oct. 22, 2010 issue, the Forward editorialized: "The Declaration of Independence approved on May 14, 1948 heralds the new nation of Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ but never defines what that actually means. There’s no mention of religion, indeed, no mention of God. (‘Rock of Israel’ is the compromise phrase). But there is an explicit description of the new state’s civic values: ‘It will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.’ The government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is deliberately, dangerously perverting these words."
The Forward went on to argue: "By amending the loyalty oath to require prospective citizens who are not Jewish to swear allegiance to ‘a Jewish state,’ Netanyahu’s cabinet crossed a line most other Western democracies do not even approach. Insisting on this vow will, understandably, make any non-Jew feel like a second-class citizen, violating the very equality and freedom so eloquently promised in Israel’s declaration."
More Challenges to Free Speech
There are other examples of nationalist challenges to free speech within Israel. The Oct. 25, 2010 Jerusalem Report highlighted the role being played by a student group called "Im Tirtzu" which, last spring, targeted the New Israel Fund, a liberal NGO that funds a cluster of human rights organizations. Im Tirtzu is now engaged in a crusade against academic freedom at Israeli universities, seeking to purge "post-Zionist" professors.
Culture critic Ariel Hirschfeld, head of Hebrew University’s Department of Hebrew Literature, accused Im Tirtzu of acting like a "thought police," and putting Israeli democracy at risk.
In late August, liberal intellectuals, many of them critical Zionists from the humanist school, hit back at the right-wingers. Thirty-six theater actors, writers and directors signed a letter refusing to perform in a new cultural center, scheduled to open in November, in the illegal West Bank settlement of Ariel. They immediately received the support of more than 150 academics who signed a petition saying that they, too, would refuse to participate in any kind of cultural activity beyond the 1967 Green Line. Several dozen Jewish Israeli writers, including Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman, signed a similar but separate letter arguing that "legitimization and acceptance of the settler enterprise would cause critical damage to Israel’s chances of achieving a peace accord with its Palestinian neighbors."
According to one of the activists, playwright Yehoshua Sobol, "It was essential to remind Israeli public opinion that there is no consensus on the legitimacy of the settlements. Because then we lose any chance for peace and we sacrifice Israel’s future prospects. It’s a case of Ariel or Israel. Ariel will destroy Israel if it goes on like this."
Concerned by what he sees as increasingly rampant right-wing intolerance, Sobol pointed to the recent example of Likud Knesset Member Miri Regev calling for the removal of major Israeli poet Natan Zach from the school syllabus because Zach said he would be ready to sail in a flotilla to Gaza. "Boycotting poets has the smell of burning books. It’s not far from that," warned Sobol. "It’s reminiscent of certain countries that spoke about ‘decadent art.’ We are on the verge of crossing red lines here."
Such right-wing extremism can be seen in the publication of Torat Hamelekh ("The King’s Torah"), written by Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elizur, both from the illegal West Bank settlement of Yitzhar. According to the authors, "The [Ten Commandments] prohibition ‘Thou shalt not murder’ applies only to a Jew who kills a Jew." Since "non-Jews are uncompassionate by nature," they should be killed "in order to curb their evil inclinations," they write. "There is justification for killing babies if it is clear that they will grow up to harm us, and in such a situation they may be harmed deliberately, and not only during combat with adults."
Yisrael Ariel, a close associate of Rabbi Yaacov Ginsburg, who had published similarly controversial books–”including one lauding Baruch Goldstein, the Brooklyn-born settler who in 1994 murdered 29 Muslims praying in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs–”declares that the statements in Torat Hamelekh are a perfectly reasonable response to the capitulation to "false Western values" that conflict with "the spirit of the Torah."
Noted the Sept. 27, 2010 issue of The Jerusalem Report: "To date, both Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger have steadily refused to comment on the book…And the government and its officials have remained silent, raising serious questions regarding the extent to which Netanyahu, whose coalition is dependent on the right wing, is willing to confront and contend with the extremists in the national religious camp."
In the opinion of legal commentator Moshe Negbi, a contributing editor to The Jerusalem Report, "This is clearly incitement to racism and to violence, for which the law mandates a five-year prison term. Religious incitement is the most dangerous, whether it is by Bin Laden, Hamas, fundamentalist Christians or extremist rabbis."
In October, Shmuel Eliahu, the chief rabbi of Sfat, and some of his rabbinical colleagues issued a statement telling residents not to rent or sell apartments to Arabs, especially not to students who come to Sfat to study at the regional college. Anyone doing so, he said, would not be welcome in the local synagogue.
Ben-Gurion University Prof. David Newman, editor of The International Journal of Geopolitics, declared that "It is precisely this form of Jewish racism that pushes the vast majority of normal Arab citizens…into the camp of the ‘enemy’…We will continue to cry that we are not an apartheid state, that we do not practice discrimination, that we are the ‘only’ true democracy in the Middle East. But as long as we allow the racist comments of Eliahu and others like him to go unanswered, we are betraying the tenets on which this state was established. As a ‘light unto the nations,’ we should be showing the world how ethnic groups can live side by side…We are proving to the world that we are unable to be a Jewish and democratic state. And even worse, we are proving that the Jewish state does not practice Jewish values or demonstrate Jewish morality."
Israel appears to be sliding down a slippery slope away from the very "Jewish" and "democratic" values it claims it embodies. Within Israel, there are many courageous voices rising in opposition. Sadly, within the organized American Jewish community there is largely silence.