Israel's Jewish Character Is Her Truth; the Rest Is Just CommentaryBy Matthew M. Hausman
A bill was introduced in the Knesset last year to amend Israel's Oath of Allegiance to require all new immigrants to swear their loyalty to a "Jewish and democratic" state. The bill does not represent any great ideological shift, but rather is consistent with Israel's Declaration of Independence and Basic Laws, which refer to her as a Jewish state multiple times and have the force and effect of a constitutional mandate.
Nevertheless, the proposed amendment has been roundly condemned by the political left and liberal press in Israel and abroad, with many commentators opining that it is incompatible with democratic principles. This assertion is nonsense, however, and serves only to camouflage the post-Zionist, anti-Zionist, or anti-Israel sentiments of the proposal's critics. It also betrays an ignorance regarding the fundamentals of democratic governance. In no way does official acknowledgment of Israel's Jewish character compromise the individual rights and liberties of Israeli citizens, nor does it inhibit the electoral process or the workings of her representative government.
The real issue for Israel's critics is not the wording of the oath of allegiance. Any sovereign nation has the right to require new citizens to pledge allegiance to its national values. Indeed, naturalized immigrants in the United States are required to swear an oath to the Constitution as if it were holy writ. No, the real cause for progressive discomfort is Israel's perceived audacity in proclaiming her essence as a Jewish state premised on Jewish values. None of Israel's detractors would think to condemn Arab-Muslim countries that base their governments on Islamic law, or Jordan for enacting Nazi-like laws prohibiting Jews from citizenship (not that Jews would desire to be Jordanian citizens), or the Saudis for prohibiting Jews entry to the Arabian peninsula, or the Palestinian Authority for openly inciting anti-Semitic hatred and supporting terrorism, calling for Israel's destruction, and seeking to create a state through ethnic cleansing.
On the contrary, liberal commentators and pundits are conspicuously silent in the face of persistent Arab-Muslim rejectionism, racism, and anti-Semitism, and they compound the perfidy of their silence by engaging in a secular form of taqiyya in order to disparage Jewish historical claims, and thereby Israel's legitimacy. The pervasive anti-Israel bias of progressive political society is reflected in its disingenuous defense of sharia as a benign expression of Islamic faith, its tendency to minimize the risk of Islamist terrorism comparatively by claiming that Christian extremism actually poses a greater threat to democracy, and its assurances of Arab-Muslim moderation despite the Palestinians' stated goals of destroying Israel and exterminating her people.
Progressive criticism of the amendment to Israel's oath does not arise out of any genuine concern for democratic values. Rather, it is fueled by the desire to delegitimize Israel by impugning her historical foundations, particularly as they are expressed in traditional Jewish nationalism and modern political Zionism. The pathological urge to belittle Jewish historical rights is, after all, the true motivation for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement and coordinated international efforts to cast Israel as a pariah state. That is the crux of progressive displeasure with the proposed change to the citizenship oath, and this becomes painfully clear when the bogus threat to democracy is fully parsed and deconstructed.
The most obvious red herring is the claim that requiring citizens to acknowledge Israel's Jewish character and Zionist roots would be inconsistent with American democratic ideals. The comparison is inapposite because the American system is the product of convergent historical forces unique to the American experience. American-style democracy exists only in the United States and is distinct from political systems found anywhere else -- including Israel. However, to the extent that the United States is held up as the standard by which all other political systems and institutions are measured, it would be fair to question what really constitutes American democracy, and whether today's political reality reflects the original intent of the founding fathers.
The truth is that America's founders never set out to create a direct democracy, but instead sought to establish a republic based on constitutional principles. This intent was clearly articulated in Article 4, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution, which states: "The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican form of Government." Though the distinctions are blurred today, there is a world of difference between republican and democratic forms of government. A constitutional republic is a representative government based on constitutional principles, whether written or unwritten, in which federal power is limited and divided among executive, legislative, and judicial branches and wherein individual rights and liberties are held to be inviolate. This differs from a direct or pure democracy, wherein citizens have a direct hand in governmental decision-making, and in which individual rights and liberties give way to majority rule. It also differs from representative democracy in which electoral constituents choose leaders to govern and legislate in their interest, at least theoretically.
The founding fathers envisioned a system in which individual rights and liberties would be paramount, states' rights would be respected, and federal powers would be limited. Thus, they were very suspicious of pure democracy, in which personal freedoms could be sacrificed for the perceived common good and in which the determination of community standards could be influenced or dictated by mob rule. This distrust was best summed up by Benjamin Franklin who, when asked what form of government the Constitution established, replied: "A Republic, if you can keep it." Consistent with Franklin's reservations, James Madison in the Federalist Papers expressed the following view regarding democracy:
These sentiments were echoed consistently by many early American luminaries, including Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.
The American system has evolved since its early days into a constitutional democracy that juggles inalienable rights, personal liberties, and communal obligations, and which features an electoral system that combines direct elections and indirect representational voting. While citizens elect their local and federal representatives directly, they choose their president through an electoral college. The popular vote determines only the electors, who in turn formally select the president. Voter input is far more attenuated in the legislative arena, in which elected representatives write and enact legislation. Although those elected are supposed to represent the interests of their constituents, they often fail to do so. Thus, the American system is not a pure democracy, but rather a hybrid incorporating direct and indirect elections, representational legislation, and constitutionally protected rights and obligations.
Given that the American system combines democratic and republican elements but is neither a pure democracy nor a classic republic, it's not always clear what its advocates mean when they extol the virtues of American democracy over any other scheme of government. Is it the elevation of individual rights and liberties (which is actually a hallmark of the republican form of government), or is it the right to select leaders and legislators through free and fair elections? And if certain rights are held to be inalienable regardless of the common good, are the self-appointed guardians of Western democracy really advancing democratic ideals at all, or instead the idealized trappings of those ideals, or perhaps purely republican principles?
These nagging questions come into sharper focus when other kinds of democracies are considered. England, for example, has a constitutional monarchy that incorporates many democratic elements, yet it differs fundamentally from the American system. Its constitution is not written, but instead is derived from various laws, principles, and documents said to form the basis of its political society. This "unwritten constitution" includes the Magna Carta, which is premised upon, among other things, the institution of the monarchy and the presumption of its divine agency. Such foundations, however, seem inherently inconsistent with democratic government.
Although England has a parliamentary legislative system, its Parliament was not always an entirely democratic institution. Whereas the House of Commons is selected through an electoral process, the House of Lords is a purely hereditary body immune to the vicissitudes of electoral politics. Though the power of the House of Lords has been diminished nearly to irrelevance, its continued existence as an institutional symbol is as inconsistent with democratic and constitutional ideals as is the concept of a divinely ordained monarchy. And yet, despite the incorporation of such imperious elements in its governmental structure, England's democratic credentials are rarely impugned, and certainly not with the same venom often reserved for Israel.
And what of democracy in the Muslim world? Some Muslim countries, such as Malaysia, are hailed as democratic simply because they have nominal constitutions and parliamentary bodies. However, individual rights and freedoms are generally subservient to Islamic law as applied by Sharia courts, and there is no separation between religion and state. Although Malaysia's national constitution ostensibly guarantees religious freedom, for example, it also proclaims Islam to be the national religion, and requires citizens to be Muslim in order to be considered ethnic Malaysians. Moreover, those who no longer consider themselves "believers" are not permitted simply to leave Islam. Only one Malaysian state officially permits conversion out of Islam, and only then after an exhausting application process that requires a year of counseling with a mufti followed by court approval, which is usually denied. Other states consider apostasy a crime that is punishable under sharia.
Clearly, governmental restrictions on matters of faith are inconsistent with either constitutional republics or democracies, but instead are more characteristic of totalitarian or theocratic regimes. Despite the severe restrictions they impose on individual rights and freedoms, so-called Islamic democracies do not rouse the ire of those liberal watchdogs who feel compelled to criticize every perceived Israeli assault on democratic principles. Ironically, the political left tends to empathize with Islamic states despite their lack of respect for the rights, liberties, and institutions that are the touchstones of liberal democracy.
In evaluating whether expressions of Zionism or official acknowledgments of Jewish values are compatible with democracy, it is first necessary to determine which political ideals provide the yardstick for measurement. Clearly, pure democracy is unattainable because it is predicated upon direct majority rule, which is subject to no checks and balances and can lead to the suppression of minority rights by a dictatorial majority. The United States is not a pure democracy, but rather seems to define itself by its emphasis on constitutional rights and liberties, although it has in the past restricted the same in order to protect national security or to preserve the public order.
Nevertheless, if individual rights and liberties are considered the cornerstones of the American system, then Israel measures up well. Israel has an open electoral system in which Arabs and Jews vote, run for office, and participate in government; and in certain ways, her system is perhaps even more open than that in the United States. Indeed, the Knesset has Arab members who voice anti-government and anti-Jewish rhetoric, openly sympathize with Israel's enemies, and engage in seditious conduct that would likely constitute treason in the United States. It is difficult to imagine U.S. congressmen advocating the destruction of the United Sates from the floors of the Senate or House of Representatives, particularly in light of the oath of office obligating them to uphold and defend the Constitution. Absurdly, however, such conduct by Arab MKs seems to be tolerated in Israel.
In addition, Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel generally live where they want and derive benefit from the same government policies and programs regarding public health, welfare, and infrastructure. Because Israeli Arabs are exempt from military service, however, they actually receive for free the same benefits for which Israeli Jews must pay with their national service. Thus, they receive identical benefits without shouldering any national responsibility. Although Arab advocates claim that they are second-class citizens in Israeli society, there is no dispute that Israeli Arabs enjoy the highest standard of living, the lowest infant mortality rates, the longest life expectancy, and the highest literacy rates of any Arab population in the Mideast.
There is likewise no dispute that Israel guarantees free speech, freedom of religion, and equal rights for women even though she has been in a constant state of war since 1948. It would certainly be easier for Israel -- and perhaps wiser -- to curtail those rights that compromise her national security. Certainly, other countries have done so, including the United States, where restrictions have been imposed on the right to speak, protest, and assemble in order to preserve national security during wartime. The U.S. government has also enacted seemingly draconian anti-sedition statutes, such as the Alien Enemies Act, which permits the government -- with little or no due process -- to deport resident aliens whose native countries are at war with the United States. From the days of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to those of Abraham Lincoln and later Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, far more people have been arrested and jailed for seditious speech and suspected enemy allegiances in the United States than have ever been detained in Israel.
Judged against this historical backdrop, those gadflies who claim that adding a few simple words to Israel's oath of citizenship will somehow bring down democracy are disingenuous and hypocritical. One wonders how they can be so consumed with Israel's alleged indiscretions and yet ignore the totalitarian and theocratic tendencies of the nations comprising the Arab-Muslim world.
Lost in all the biased discourse is the simple truth meant to be conveyed by the proposed change to the oath, which is that Israel's existence is justified precisely because she is a Jewish nation in the ancient homeland. No other sovereign nation existed in this land from the time of the Dispersion to the reestablishment of the modern state. Accordingly, Israel's existence is not predicated on whether she is democratic or republican, liberal or conservative. Rather, Israel exists as the homeland of an ancient people that maintained its national identity, religious integrity and connection to its land throughout the millennia. This connection is corporeal as well as spiritual and remains unbroken to the present day.
Regardless of the technical form of her government, Israel is first and foremost a Jewish nation. She is not a melting pot, but rather a patchwork where individual and minority rights are respected as long as they do not threaten her security and continuity as a Jewish state. No other country is expected to court national suicide by sacrificing its needs and ideals to placate hostile critics and enemies who are opposed to its very existence. Therefore, Israel must not indulge those who denigrate her existence and call for her destruction. Instead, she should rejoice in her history as the homeland of the Jewish People and her mission as their national refuge. When all is said and done, Israel's Jewish character is her truth, and the rest is just commentary.
Matt Hausman is an attorney in New York State.
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