Why the loyalty oath is a good deal

Maybe it’s because I was a Jew in an Arab country that I have a slightly different take on the loyalty oath controversy. Imagine, for a minute, that your name is Ahmed and you are a gay Palestinian living in Ramallah. You live in fear of being outed, ostracized, even jailed and tortured. A few miles away is a Jewish and democratic nation called Israel. Your partner, who is Arab and lives there, has been telling you for years that he suffers no discrimination from being gay. In fact, a few months ago, he danced in the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem with full protection from the Israeli authorities.

Lately, you’ve been doing research on Google to find out more about how Israel treats its minorities. You’re doing this because since you were a child, you have been taught that Jews are the “sons of dogs” who have no connection to this land and are deserving only of hatred. How could such “sons of dogs” be so respectful of Arab homosexuals?

You learn in your research that Arabs living in Israel enjoy free health care and welfare benefits; democratic rights, like freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom to vote; full women’s rights; and opportunities to learn at great universities.

You also discover the following items about Israeli Arabs: the existence of Arab political parties in the Israeli government like Hadash, Balad and Ra’amTa’al, which have the right to promote even incendiary things like the Palestinian “right of return” and the dismantling of Israel’s nuclear arsenal; NGOs like Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, which helps minorities seek legal redress; Ali Yahya, Israel’s Arab ambassador to Greece; Salim Joubran, Supreme Court justice; and Oscar Abu-Razek, director general of the Ministry of Interior.

You also learn about Raleb Majadele, the first Arab Cabinet minister in Israel; Jamal Hakrush, assistant commander in Israel’s National Police; Rana Raslan, the first Arab to win a Miss Israel contest; Bnei Sakhnin, the first Arab soccer team to win Israel’s State Cup; Asala Shahada, an Arab who won a gold medal at the Maccabiah games; and Majd el-Haj, an Arab sociology professor at Haifa University who was promoted to dean of research at the university.

You ask yourself: How could all these Arabs be so successful in a Jewish state that is supposed to favor Jews and discriminate against Arabs?

As you research the answer, you come across this finding from a report of the U.S. State Department: “Most of the Arab states are ruled by oppressive, dictatorial regimes, which deny their citizens basic freedoms of political expression, speech, press and due process.” Ah hah, you say, maybe that explains why Arabs in Israel are not clamoring to leave the Jewish state and join their brethren in other Arab countries.

You then find Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which affirms the full legal and human rights of all its citizens, Jew and non-Jew alike. Because you have been taught to believe that the birth of Israel is a “catastrophe” and that Jews have no connection to the land, you are surprised to discover the 3,000-year connection of the Jewish people to Israel. This helps you understand Israel’s Law of Return, which states that Jews become automatic citizens when they “return home” to Israel.

Finally, you read about a recent and controversial amendment to Israel’s citizen loyalty oath. The proposed amendment would require non-Jewish foreigners wishing to become Israeli citizens to declare loyalty not just to the State of Israel, but to the “Jewish and democratic” State of Israel.

So you think: I would be able to live as a proud and free homosexual and enjoy all the other civil rights and benefits in return for taking a loyalty oath to a “Jewish and democratic” state? Hey, that sounds like a pretty good deal to me. What’s all the fuss about?

The fuss, Ahmed, is that a lot of people think this initiative is offensive and racist — that it is OK for a non-Jew to pledge loyalty to the State of Israel, but not to the “Jewish and democratic” State of Israel.

So what do I think?

First, I don’t get all the hysterics. I might see the problem if the oath were only to a “Jewish” state, but to a “Jewish and democratic” state? Doesn’t that addition make all the difference in the world? Isn’t it democracy that enables Arab citizens to become Supreme Court justices, university professors or the second in command of the National Police?

A non-Jew gains a lot more by the word “democratic” than he loses by the word “Jewish.” If an Arab man like Ahmed, for example, ever marries his partner in Tel Aviv and has to make his oath of loyalty to a “Jewish and democratic” state, he won’t be thinking of how Jewish Israel is, but how democratic it is and respectful of his human right to enter into a gay marriage.

As a Sephardic Jew, I can tell you that Jews who lived for centuries as good citizens of Arab countries would have loved nothing more than to pledge loyalty to a “Muslim and democratic state” in return for the same freedoms, rights and protections that Arabs enjoy today in Israel.

But what about the fact that Jews become automatic citizens and don’t have to take this oath? Isn’t that a racist idea? Not according to my friend Yossi Klein Halevi, who writes in an e-mail from Jerusalem:

“There is a difference between an oleh [one who makes aliyah] who is repatriating home and a foreigner being naturalized. Many democracies require loyalty oaths of naturalizing citizens. The point of a Jewish state is that Jews aren’t like naturalizing citizens — they are olim returning home. That distinction is crucial for affirming who we are. This is not about racism — it is about a reaffirmation of our right to define ourselves as a people returning home.

“If and when the Palestinians create a state, the first law they are likely to pass will be their version of our law of return, granting automatic citizenship to returning Palestinians. If an outsider wants to become a Palestinian citizen, he/she would no doubt have to go through a longer process.”

Personally, whether it’s part of a citizenship process or not, I’d love to see a national pledge of allegiance to a “Jewish and democratic” Israel. In fact, it ought to become a subject of study in Israeli schools and universities and part of a national conversation where every group gets to contribute its thoughts to this work in progress.

Both words — “Jewish” and “democratic” — are complicated and multilayered. Their marriage represents one of the great Jewish ideals — the collective project that Jews have come home to after almost 2,000 years.

Featuring this ideal in the loyalty oath reminds Israel of its obligations to all of its citizens, not just to its Jewish ones. As much as the applicant makes a formal gesture of loyalty, Israel makes a formal commitment of its democratic promise. The issue of who is required to take the oath is a fair one, but it shouldn’t cloud the central fact that the oath itself is an especially good deal for minorities looking for official protection of their democratic rights.

That’s why I can’t understand the hysterical reaction of many Jews who have recoiled in shame and horror at this initiative, as if Israel had just decided to shut down every Arab newspaper or board up every mosque.

Yes, Israel could have done a better job of presenting the initiative, which suffered from awkward timing and its association with Yisrael Beitenu. But Israel’s political clumsiness is even more reason for Israel supporters to reaffirm and defend the country’s moral standing.

Despite all its faults, and despite being in a permanent state of war with enemies at its doorstep, Israel is still, by far, the most open and civil society in the Middle East. Think about that. The best place for an Arab to be free and successful in the Middle East is in a Jewish state under siege by Arabs. Incredible, no?

If Israel were smart, it would initiate a massive PR effort promoting the freedoms, rights and opportunities that Arabs get in Israel that they can never get in other Arab countries. It would show the world that its loyalty oath is a shining light in the Middle East cesspool.

A good place to start would be with Arabs like Ahmed from Ramallah, who dreams of signing an oath that would free him to be gay and dance in public with his Arab-Israeli partner next year in Jerusalem.