Yaakov Neeman
Yaakov Neeman. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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It is not surprising that the cabinet debate on the Immigration and Citizenship Law did not focus on the bill itself, which sought to develop a comprehensive immigration policy for the first time, but on the nature of the pledge of allegiance for those wishing to become naturalized Israeli citizens. The ministerial team headed by Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman proposed that the text include a pledge of allegiance to the State of Israel "as a Jewish and democratic state." Since most of those to whom this may apply will be immigrants from the territories or Arab states wishing to marry Israeli Arabs, the matter is clearly sensitive.

The proposal can be criticized on two levels. First, should candidates for naturalization be required to make a pledge with substantive content beyond a general pledge of allegiance to the laws of Israel, and if so, is the proposed text justified? In its July 18 editorial, "Loyalty to the state is enough," Haaretz asserted that a general pledge is enough and that any additional detailed content is unjustified. Sounds pretty logical, but the question is, what happens in other democratic countries? Maybe something can be learned from them?

It turns out it is precisely democratic countries that are open to immigration that require candidates for naturalization to make pledges that deal with values and political principles these nations see as central to their worldview. In Norway the formulation is: "I pledge loyalty to my country Norway and to the Norwegian society, and I support democracy and human rights and will respect the laws of the country." In Britain: "I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values." In Australia: "I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect." In South Africa: "I will ... uphold and respect its Constitution and commit myself to the furtherance of the ideas and principles contained therein."

In the American oath of allegiance there are echoes of the justification of the republican form of government, which grew out of the rebellion against the British monarchy: "I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty ... that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies ... that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law ... that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by law." This is far-reaching language because it made it possible to strip the citizenship of immigrants who refused to serve in the army or were perceived as members of groups whose aims contradicted the constitution, such as anarchists, Nazis and Communists.

These examples suffice to show that it is precisely democratic states that require candidates for naturalization to accept the conceptual principles of the country whose citizens they want to become.

The question that remains is whether the expression "Jewish and democratic state" is the right formula. Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister Dan Meridor felt that this language is an unnecessary provocation of Israel's Arab citizens, and he is right. In "A Strategy for Immigration Policy to Israel," a position paper issued by The Metzilah Center that I authored with Amnon Rubinstein, Ruth Gavison and Liav Orgad, we proposed a formula that requires acceptance of "the legitimacy of the State of Israel," since that is precisely what Israel's enemies wish to deny it.

What's more, anyone who opposes such a formula (and there are such extreme elements among Israeli Arabs ) will thus prove that he is not interested in civil rights but the denial of Israel's legitimacy. The demand for a pledge of allegiance with substantive content is therefore acceptable and justified, but it is not too late to choose language that is both more substantive and less vulnerable to criticism.