The Israeli Knesset cabinet passed a law on Sunday requiring non-Jews naturalizing as Israeli citizens to swear an oath of allegiance to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.” The law will not apply to Jews, who automatically qualify for immediate Israeli citizenship.
It’s worth recalling, however, that the law will not apply to most Palestinian citizens of Israel (20 percent of the state’s citizens ) who marry other Palestinians, from Gaza or the West Bank, for instance, because there is already a law that bars the latter from acquiring Israeli citizenship or even residency in Israel. What this means is that if you are an Arab citizen of Israel who wants to marry someone from Ramallah or Rafah, your spouse will not be allowed to get Israeli citizenship or even residency. On the other hand, if you are a Jewish Israeli who marries a Jew without Israeli citizenship, your spouse would immediately get Israeli citizenship upon arrival based solely on his or her religion.
Really, this new law would only affect the non-Jewish and non-Palestinian spouses of Israeli citizens, that is to say a European Christian, for example, who wanted to marry an Israeli. First, if the couple aren’t the same religion, they would have to get married outside of the country, since only religious marriages are allowed in Israel. Then the non-Jewish spouse would have to swear an oath of allegiance to Israel as a Jewish and democratic country.
So it’s important that this new oath be taken within the context of Israeli citizenship laws and Israeli concepts of citizenship. It merely makes more explicit the state’s ideology, which is to say, ethno-religious nationalism. If this notion seems distasteful to Americans, it’s because with the exception of ultra-nationalist nativist groups, the West has largely rejected ethnic and religious notions of citizenship. In other words, Israel and America do not share the same values when it comes to who is a citizen.
The US Bill of Rights, for example, explicitly states in the First Amendment that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The Fourteenth Amendment also states in the equal protection clause,
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
So not only would this new oath not past constitutional muster, clearly violating the equal protection clause, neither would Israel’s citizenship laws in general.
That said, I support Israel’s decision to implement this loyalty oath, not because it’s right, but rather because I think it helps illustrate the distasteful ideology on which Israel, as an officially Jewish state, is based — the idea that the state belongs to a single ethno-religious group first and foremost. Through the civil rights movement and by its very constitution, the United States has (imperfectly, to be sure) illustrated that as a country it rejects the values that led to such horrors in Europe in the first half of the 20th century.
Sadly, though, Zionists seem to have drawn the exact opposite lesson from European ethnic nationalism — not that ethnic nationalism is a bad thing, but that Jews should have their own form of it. If this makes Americans and Europeans uncomfortable, it should, because as history has shown us, if ethno-religious nationalism is problematic in more or less homogeneous societies, it is even more so in a mixed society.