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Looking Beyond the Loyalty Oath: the Rising Tide of Jewish Nationalism and the Palestinian Factor

On October 10, an overwhelming majority of the Israeli cabinet approved a proposed amendment to the country’s Citizenship Law, which if made into law would require any non-Jew seeking citizenship to swear his loyalty to Israel as a ‘Jewish and democratic’ state. This latest move, while headline grabbing in its own right, is reflective of a wider phenomenon within Israel today, in which the Jewish identity of the state has become central not only to negotiations with the PLO but also to relations with Israel’s Palestinian minority.

It’s Not Just Avigdor

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been seen as largely responsible for the recent focus on ‘loyalty’, with his election platform and campaign slogans emphasizing the ‘threat’ posed by Israeli Palestinians. But Lieberman’s rhetoric, currently translated into various bill propositions included but not limited to the loyalty oath, is nothing new: as Transportation Minister in 2004, Lieberman publicised a plan “to separate Jews from Arabs” that included “exiling Israeli Arabs deemed disloyal to the state”.

More importantly, focusing exclusively on Lieberman and his ultra-nationalist right-wing party Yisrael Beiteinu is simplistic, as efforts to preserve Israel’s “Jewish identity” from perceived threats have emerged over the last several years from a variety of points along the Israeli political spectrum. Prime Minister Nehtanyahu himself, while a cabinet member in 2003, called the Palestinian citizens a “demographic problem”.  In March 2007, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Office confirmed that Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, would “thwart” the activities of groups and individuals who opposed the Jewish character of the state, “even if such activity is sanctioned by the law”. Two months later, Shin Bet asserted its right to target individuals “conducting subversive activity against the Jewish identity of the state” even if the activity in question was legal.

A Growing Trend of Jewish Nationalism Inside Israel

The loyalty oath bill is but one example of an accelerating deterioration of the Israeli state’s relationship with its Palestinian minority on the legislative, national security and religious fronts. There are currently a variety of proposed bills at different stages within the legislative process, which are decidedly open in their nationalistic discrimination.  One bill which recently passed its first legislative hurdle, receiving unanimous support in the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee of the Knesset, would give official license for small communities in Israel to reject potential residents on the basis of criteria like ‘social suitability’. During the debate, MK David Rotem from coalition party Yisrael Beiteinu commented that, in his opinion, “every Jewish town needs at least one Arab. What would happen if my refrigerator stopped working on a Saturday?” In fact, such selection committees already operate in hundreds of Israeli towns, effecting a de facto exclusion of Palestinian citizens.

A piece in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz made the point that the very creation of these small communities in the Galilee and Negev was “for the purpose of fulfilling the controversial goal of “Judaizing” regions around the country”. A geographer for the Jewish Agency’s “hilltop planning team” recently described the goals of these communities as “prevent[ing} Arabs from ‘taking over’ government lands, keep[ing] Arab villages from attaining territorial continuity and attract[ing] a ‘strong’ population to the Galilee”.

On the national security front, the country’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who has considerable authority with respect to immigration and security related matters, is personally committed to revoking “the citizenship of people convicted of offenses involving disloyalty to the state”.  Yishai’s focus on “loyalty-related offenses” is complemented by Shin Bet’s declared support for “revoking the citizenship of anyone convicted of terror crimes”.

Then there are the increasing number of declarations by Jewish religious leaders, which promote ‘separation’ and contribute to a climate of hostility and mistrust towards Palestinian citizens. For example, a number of rabbis based in Safed responded to an increase in the Arab student population by “urging Jews to refrain from renting or selling apartments to non-Jews”, a move supported by groups concerned with the “creeping conquest” by “Arabs in mixed cities” that “endangers security and increases intermarriage”. Support for maintaining Israel’s “Jewishness” also came from a former chief rabbi of Israel, and the spiritual leader of coalition party Shas. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef emphasised a ruling “barring the sale of land in the Land of Israel to non-Jews”, not long after he also expressed his opinion that “the sole purpose of non-Jews is to serve Jews”. Meanwhile in Lod, “gated estates…reserved for religious Zionists” are being constructed, “blocks” that in the words of the town’s chief rabbi, “will ensure Lod stays Jewish”. In Karmiel, the deputy mayor invited residents to “report Arabs who intend to buy flats in the town”.

The Palestinian Factor

The combination of exclusion and a discourse of dis/loyalty is a dangerous one, particularly if these recent measures are only the beginning of a more far-reaching process. As Israeli civil-rights organization Adalah has warned, “the approval of this loyalty oath may serve as a slippery slope, as declarations of allegiance to a Jewish and democratic state may soon be required from all newly elected ministers, members of Knesset, workers in the Israeli civil service and/or required when trying to obtain an Israeli identity card or passport, etc.”

In connection with these developments, it is useful to remember Israeli government initiatives put into place after 1948 to ensure that the country’s Palestinian minority would abandon its distinctive national identity and become loyal ‘Israeli Arabs’. These kinds of policies meant “no educational autonomy” for Palestinians, rewarding Arab villages and clans who voted for nationalist Zionist parties, firing school teachers who advocated for a unique Palestinian national narrative, and “attempt[ing] to divide and conquer the [Palestinians] by fostering religious differences between Muslim and Christian”. Ironically, having worked for decades to undermine a distinctive identity amongst its Arab minority, the Israeli government’s support for initiatives insisting on the exclusively Jewish identity of the state is prompting a resurfacing of questions about Palestinian-ness on a discursive level. This is occurring in parallel with an increasing sense of shared struggle among Palestinians on either side of the Green Line, after decades of Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories and their effective incorporation into the fabric of the Israeli state.

Why then the counter-productive insistence on the “Jewishness” of the Israeli state? It appears that Palestinian assertiveness in demanding equality (in Israel) and freedom from military rule (in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) has prompted the Israeli establishment to engage in nationalistic measures and rhetoric as a form of “pushback”. The First and Second Intifadas, as well as the October 2000 uprising by Israel’s Palestinian citizens and its brutal suppression, have furthered a sense in the country that substantial threats are not only – or even primarily – external (i.e. a ‘traditional’ inter-state war), but rather ‘internal’.  As the slew of initiatives emanating from the Knesset and religious authorities on ‘loyalty’ and separation shows no sign of slowing, it seems that this trend may in fact be a logical outcome of the Israeli government’s refusal to deal with the Palestinian question, outside of the parameters of ethno-exclusivist privilege, and the Palestinians’ refusal to accept these terms, whether in Ramallah, Silwan, or Nazareth.

First published in Muftah.

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