Northern Israeli City's Pledge to 'Preserve Jewish Character' Found Legally Invalid

An Arab lawmaker demanded Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit invalidate the Afula City Council's declaration of allegiance: 'There are no words for the severity of the racist oath'

Afula residents protest selling homes to Arabs, June 21, 2018.
Gil Eliahu

The attorney general has ruled that when members of the Afula City Council added a phrase vowing “to preserve the Jewish character of the city” to the usual pledge of allegiance to the State of Israel after last year’s local elections, it invalidated the oath.

The weeks preceding the 2018 municipal election in Afula, in northern Israel, the council members and Mayor Avi Elkabetz fought against the sales of homes in the city to Arabs, and even closed the city park to outside visitors.

In his election campaign, Elkabetz warned against “the occupation of the park,” which is sometimes used by Arabs from the surrounding communities.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit said last week that even though adding the phrase in effect undermined the validity of their declaration of allegiance, his office decided not to require the council members to pledge allegiance again. However, his office has made clear to all local authorities that there should be no deviation from the official declaration of allegiance to the state and its laws.

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In October 2018, at their first post-election session, the council members promised “to preserve the Jewish character of Afula and to preserve the status quo.” Arab lawmaker Yousef Jabareen of Hadash-Ta’al demanded that Mendelblit invalidate the declaration of allegiance. “There are no words for the severity of the racist oath,” he wrote. “Not only is the declaration invalid because it deviates from the legal wording, but it is a racist, inciting ceremony that is a serious blow to Arab residents of Afula and to the Arab public in general.”

The Afula municipality claimed that there is no law saying that adding words to the declaration, as opposed to omitting or distorting them, invalidates it, and that “this legal opinion is supported by the Interior Ministry.” The Interior Ministry saw no reason for intervening in the decision as the addition doesn’t nullify the declaration.

But the arguments of the local authority and the Interior Ministry were rejected during discussions in the attorney general’s office. Last week Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber wrote to Jabareen that the declaration of allegiance should include only the official wording, without any subtraction or addition. Therefore, any council member who changes the wording should be considered “as though he doesn’t declare allegiance” - which could lead to losing the right to vote in the council and in various committees.

Zilber explained in a letter that any addition to the text undermines its validity, and that adding the phrase about preserving Afula’s Jewish character “would have been better left unsaid.” The opinion was sent to the Interior Ministry’s legal adviser, so that he can send it to all the legal advisers of local governments.

Despite invalidating the addition, the attorney general’s office decided not to demand that the Afula City Council members declare allegiance again, because “it’s possible that the legal situation wasn’t clear at the time,” and that the legal significance of such a deviation wasn’t explained in advance. But Zilber stressed that “to remove any doubt, from now on there will be a general clarification in order to anticipate the future.”

In response Jabareen said that the attorney general “should have invalidated the addition and required the council members to make a new declaration.” He said that the addition “is racist and invalid on a legal and moral level … It’s very regrettable that the attorney general doesn’t see fit to express an opinion about the words that were said - which were clearly directed at the Arab minority. The words of the council members encourage hatred and hostility, and should have been condemned without hesitation.”