The controversy sparked over the government's recent decision to demand all aspiring Israeli citizens to pledge their allegiance not only to Israel, but to a "Jewish and democratic" one, provides us with a unique opportunity to rectify one of the most common mistakes in such debates – the inability to differentiate between statements and symbols and pivotal legal and political arrangements.
I subscribe to the majority opinion of Jews in Israel, who believe that Israel is indeed the place where the Jewish people can realize its right to national self-determination, and that this characteristic is a crucial and just one. Israel is not a neutral state, but a national one, with meticulous attention to minority rights.
I also believe that the gap between the state's Jewishness and a true commitment to democracy and human rights – including individual and collective rights for the Arab minority in Israel – is not unbridgeable.
This perception has long since been that of the majority of the Jewish public, but our founders failed to elevate them to a symbolic, declarative level. There has always been a silent understanding that this was the essence of the nation, and no one was required to pledge their loyalty to it as such.
Israeli-born citizens are not required to pledge their allegiance. Naturalized citizens (with the exception of those entitled under the Law of Retun), are required to pledge their allegiance regardless, as do judges, Knesset members and government ministers. Such declarations proved complicated for some of our public officials – including Jewish ones – but their innate ambiguity meant there was no need to make decisions that were not absolutely necessary.
'Don't stifle the debate'
The legislative declarations as to the nature of the state, which culminated with the amendment to the Citizenship Act, reared in response to specific phenomena, such as political bids by parties negating the legitimacy of Israel's Jewish or democratic nature; the pinnacle of which came in 1992, with the Basic Laws - where religious MKs' demand for the characterization of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state was met.
There is also a debate among Jews themselves as to the actual meaning of "Jewish" in this respect – the Jewish nationality or the Jewish religion. To a significant part of the Arab leadership, the distinction is meaningless: any declaration as to the state's Jewishness – religious, national or any combination thereof – is unacceptable. This disagreement is one of the factors which hinder the completion of the Israeli constitution.
There is a critical distinction to be made: The theoretical and political debate over the State's identity and the latter's justification has been going on fiercely for years, and it will continue. We will not reach an agreement as to the actual meaning of "Jewish" or as to the justification for Israel being a Jewish and democratic state.
It is, however, important to keep the debate going and not stifle it once and for all via legislation – that will be ineffective, as well as unwise. Nevertheless, it is vital that the decisions made preserve the ability to sustain the conditions for a successful combination that will see Israel realize its role as the national state of the Jewish people, while affording the kind of democracy which respects the human rights of all of its citizens, including the collective rights of the Arab minority.
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These conditions include, among others: an immigration policy which will maintain a Jewish majority without infringing on human rights, while excluding those who do not identify with its nature; unlike born citizens, who are not subjected to pledge requirements.
This is a very basic distinction, which is recognized by all states and by International Law. A nation is under no obligation to grant citizenship to anyone and it most certainly does not have to grant citizenship to an individual who is opposed to key elements in its creed. A nation is under no obligation to "volunteer" to accept those how object to its fundamental goals as residents or citizens, nor does it have to accept those who will become a financial, social or political burden.
A nation can condition citizenship. All nations – Israel included – do.
Today's reality mandates that Israel, like many Western nations, adapt its immigration policies. While in the beginning it was believed that a better result could be achieved by demanding that those applying for citizenship pledge their loyalty to the state – as is acceptable worldwide – the de facto decision on the matter in Israel was left to the interior minister's discretion.
Today, the latter is constricted by administrative and legislative demands, which require equality and transparency of considerations, especially in cases where Israelis wish to sponsor those who are not of close familial relations – as it should be.
When measured against this backdrop, the suggestion that the pledge of allegiance interpret the nature of the State as both Jewish and democratic in not invalid. After all, "identity" is a constitutional given of the state. Avoiding the use of the term when it is relevant might create the impression that the State itself does not view it as important.
The term's innate ambiguity can go either way. It could also be argued to the contrary, that democracy is perceived as a state's be-all and end-all, and that the combined definition fails to adequately protect just, national interests.
On the other hand, it would be right to formulate such loyalty pledge so it could achieve as much as possible without invoking feelings of exclusion or discrimination. It is also wrong to burden as issue as sensitive and as important as immigration to Israel with political discord.
Other ways can be devised, such as the Metzilah Center's proposal that a naturalized citizen will declare that he or she recognize the legitimacy of the State of Israel.
It would also be better if the naturalized citizens pledge of allegiance would be extended to include those who have a right to citizenship under the Law of Return, which may diminish the fear that this move is meant to burden non-Jews in general and specifically Arabs. Such a move, in my opinion, is also just by its own right.
Another way would be to include the naturalized citizen's willingness to serve the country via National Service, or willingness to integrate in the social and political fabric.
Naturalized citizens' pledge of allegiance to the State should include not only their wish to enjoy the benefits of citizenship, but also their willingness to undertake the obligations that come with it. That must not be forfeited.
Still, there is no need to spite. It is a shame that the Arabs see the need to recognize Israel as the Jewish state as a beacon of discrimination or exclusion; but unfortunately, statements made by some of our leaders do not render that sentiment baseless.
Still, we should focus on the matter at hand, not statements made about it. Let us focus on achieving our goals, not on futile political debate.
Prof. Ruth Gavison is a law professor, a Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Israel Democracy Institute and founder of the Metzilah Center for Zionist, Jewish, Liberal and Humanist Thought