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 Benjamin Netanyahu is deliberately, dangerously perverting those words.
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.
But that’s not all. This insistence on proclaiming Israel as a “Jewish state” is also infecting Netanyahu’s on-again, mostly off-again talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu knows full well that Abbas cannot agree to that language without abandoning the Palestinians’ right of return, and that is a subject for final status negotiation, not something Abbas can exchange for a piddly two-month settlement freeze.
If Netanyahu is employing this phrase simply for political purposes, to appease his nationalist right-wing coalition partners and stall peace talks, that is offensive enough. But it also reflects a deep insecurity about Israel’s national character that belies all his bellicose rhetoric. Why does Israel need to be defined by others? It is a Jewish state, with a Jewish majority, a Jewish military, a Jewish government, a Jewish flag, a Jewish national anthem, a Jewish calendar. Wasn’t the goal of Zionism self-determination? Better to act in a way consonant with Jewish values — the values espoused in the Declaration — than to grovel before an enemy for some kind of validation.
To argue that these steps are necessary because Israel faces unprecedented threats of delegitimization displays an appalling historical amnesia. In 1948, when Israel was a bold but altogether untested dream — ringed by sworn foes, disliked or dismissed by much of the world, its economy teetering and its future uncertain — its brave leaders pledged fealty to equality and justice. Only fear-mongers parading as politicians could pretend that, six decades later, facing real but hardly equivalent threats, Israel should relinquish its fundamental values and its essential strength.