Of all times for the loyalty oath fracas to take place, it had to be when this column, designed from the start to deal with issues like these, was on a break. With the speed of news these days, the whole kerfuffle seems a year old.
But beyond the law's actual tenets, which would force new immigrants, Jews and non-Jews alike, to pledge allegiance to the Jewish State, there is a much wider issue here that warrants discussion. Even a month after the events.
The real father of the loyalty pledge is, of course, Avigdor Lieberman and his motives are clear. He does not really care whether it ever actually becomes law. Lieberman has made his point and by putting the matter on the national agenda, will have more points next time he faces the voters and claims the mantle of the true leader of Israel's nationalist right-wing camp.
But some of the pledge's original backers did have worthwhile reasons which deserve serious consideration. For example, Ehud Barak, who originally supported the pledge before the Labor Party unanimously decided to vote against, suggested allegiance to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. An affirmation of a nation's core values as an element in citizenship exists in other democracies such as the United States, and certainly makes more sense than swearing to be "faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors," as my mother had to do when she became a British citizen. And even the archaic British Oath of Allegiance was deemed to be reasonable by the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in 1999 that it was "an affirmation of loyalty to the constitutional principles which support ... the workings of representative democracy."
So why all the fuss in Israel and around the world? For one thing, it was the blatant racist fashion in which the pledge was originally proposed - loyalty to a Jewish and democratic state required only from its non-Jewish prospective citizens naturally set off the debate. But there are deeper feelings at work beneath the surface. The right wing has a valid point when they blame Israel's critics in the west for holding the Jewish State up to moral standards, higher not only than those of its Arab neighbors but stricter even than those of their own countries.
Those attacking the government's decision, while themselves living in nations that have long demanded similar pledges of allegiances, were subconsciously voicing their own hidden insecurities regarding national identity in our day and age. These critics have failed so far to come up with a credible response to developments throughout western Europe and northern America, and the crisis of identity that is buffeting majority groups and minorities in so many countries.
Two weeks ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel articulated this lack of answers when she admitted that multiculturalism in Germany had failed, but fell short of offering any real alternative by which her country could integrate its Muslim minority better. It has been evident in much of the rhetoric coming from the Tea Party fringe during the U.S. midterm elections campaign and in the acrimonious debate over the Ground Zero mosque in New York; the lines defining tolerance, bigotry and identity have become almost irretrievably blurred. Is President Sarkozy a bigot with his campaign to deport gypsies (sorry, Roma ) from France, and are the French and Swiss racist Islamophobes because of their support for bans on the burka and the building of minarets?
Electorates in Denmark, Holland, Austria and Belgium, to name but a few, are increasingly willing to vote for far-right politicians who are prepared to state clearly their anti-immigrant sentiments. Left-wing liberals are boxed in from both sides. It gets harder to dismiss the opposing views as chauvinist and xenophobic while they gather widespread respectable support, and on the other side, embracing minority groups becomes a nightmare when it transpires that many of their leaders and organizations do not entirely believe in democracy or human rights. Too many Western liberals prefer to ignore the disturbing tendencies of their new allies.
The choice for Jews is even starker. A natural affinity for embattled minorities clashes with the realization that many of these minorities are also instinctively anti-Semitic and the most anti-Israel of all groups in the west. How does one respond to the transformation of the far right in Europe such as the English Defence League in Britain from Judaeophobic movements with disturbing neo-Nazi connections to Israel-flag-waving Muslim-haters?
Merkel was right, multiculturalism has failed, not because its underlying sentiments were necessarily wrong but because it aspired to replace traditional national values. The right and the left have failed to come up with the answers but they are there, in those original principles stated in declarations of independence, written constitutions and unwritten western core values of common decency and fair play.
The founding fathers of the United States and Israel set out blueprints for respect of minorities along with a common adherence to national identity and principles. Decent people implicitly understand this and know the difference between these ideals and populist emotions.
Building identities capable of fusing national and universal values will be the defining challenge of the West in the 21st century. Jewish communities with unparalleled experience in serving as proud, loyal and productive minorities have much to offer in this process. Israelis will have to find the way to do this while dealing with other existential issues such as ensuring its future security and ending the occupation of the Palestinians, and not allowing charlatans of Lieberman's ilk to hijack the agenda.
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