The Israeli cabinet has approved a measure that would require persons applying for Israeli citizenship to affirm the “Jewish and democratic” character of Israel. The new oath would at the moment affect relatively few people, mainly Palestinians outside Israel who marry Palestinian-Israelis and who wish to unite the family on the Israeli side of the green line (and are permitted to do so). But the backer of the oath, Avigdor Lieberman (a former club bouncer from Moldavia), wants a similar or even stricter oath to be administered to all the Palestinian-Israelis, who form roughly 20 percent of Israel’s population.
Supporters of the measure, such as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, point out that this language already exists in Israel’s organic law.
“Jewish” as a marker of identity can refer either to a religion or to ethnicity (as defined in Israel, persons born of a Jewish mother). Ethnicity is arguably the more important of the two markers, since a practicing Jew in Israel born of a Gentile mother cannot be listed as “Jewish” in their identification papers. The most recent Israeli census said there were 7.2 million Israelis, with about 5.5 million Jews, 300,000 non-Jews, and 1.4 million Arabs or what I call Palestinian-Israelis. The non-Jews are mostly those children of mixed families where the mother was not Jewish. Most of them view themselves as Jewish and some are actively upset that they cannot be so listed. The 5.5 million Jews, moreover, included large numbers of Russians who do not practice Judaism but whose claims to Jewish ethnic ancestry were thought credible by the Israeli authorities. (Among Israeli intellectuals there are many skeptics about many of these Russian “Jews.”)
It seems obvious, then, that the “Jewish” in Netanyahu’s new oath is not primarily a religious marker, since otherwise many of the 300,000 would be “Jewish” on their identity cards and many of the Russians would be non-Jewish on grounds of love of ham sandwiches. Admittedly, religion is in the mix, since at some point in the past the matriarchs producing Jews were themselves religious Jews. In the past, religion preceded ethnicity, while in current Israeli law ethnicity precedes religion.
As such, asking someone to say that Israel is a “Jewish and democratic state” in order to gain citizenship would be analogous to asking a Hindu Indian immigrant to the United States to affirm that the US is “a white, ancestrally Christian democratic state.” That is, white ethnicity would be privileged and would be defined in part by Christian, and likely even Protestant, antecedents. (Early twentieth century racist judges had already clarified that while Hindu Indians might be Aryans insofar as they speak an Indo-European language, they were not “white.”)
It should be obvious that asking African or Asian immigrants, or even many Latinos, to make such an affirmation as the price of citizenship would be discriminatory and racist, insofar as their very oath would deprive them of first-class citizenship.
Political theorists distinguish between “civic” nationalism, such as that in the United States and France, and “ethnic” nationalism, more common in 19th century Central Europe. Civic nationalism is based on ideals (fealty to the US constitution, e.g.) and history. Thus, Crispus Attucks, an African-American, has often been seen as the first martyr to American independence, which was about ideals and not ethnicity. There was nevertheless a latent racism in American nationalism, which assumed that the “real” Americans were white Protestants. Thus, the ideal of civic nationalism is sometimes tainted by or intertwined with the sentiments of ethnic nationalism. But by and large over time, civic nationalism has won out in the American courts, though often only after a long struggle.
I don’t like ethnic nationalism, since at its worst it produces phenomena like Nazi Germany or Milosevic’s Serbia. If the nation is defined by a dominant ethnicity, then how “pure” does the ethnicity have to be? And is it polluted by the presence of other ethnic groups (might not they intermarry and dilute the core ethnicity?) In a globalizing world with massive labor migration, ethnic nationalism is a recipe for race war.
And, of course, as a historian I reject the whole idea of a “race” in the 19th century Romantic nationalist sense as a figment of the imagination. Brian Sykes found on looking at the mitochondrial DNA of Europeans that all the women had only one of 7 haplotypes or patterns in the chromosomes, and that the same 7 appeared in all linguistic and national groups, including e.g. the Basque, though the proportions varied. Germans are no different in this regard from the Irish or from Bulgarians. The vast majority of Ashkenazi Jewish women have one of the same 7 haplotypes rather than Palestinian ones. I.e. they are directly descended from Gentile great great grandmothers who married Jewish men. One only has to go back ten or twelve thousand years at most, probably, to find a common ancestor for all the Mediterranean populations. There are no races and all human beings are all mixed up in regard to ancestry. A recent excavation at Rome from the time of Augustus found a Chinese worker. How he got to the Roman Empire would make a great tale. But if he married a Roman woman and had children, likely all Italians now have some descent from him, and so are cousins of all the Chinese.
Ethnic nationalism is not only intrinsically unfair, but it is also based on a lie, that races are real things.
If most countries have a mix of civic nationalist emphases with ethnic nationalist ones, there is nevertheless typically a predominance of one over the other. However privileged French-speaking Catholics tracing themselves to the Gaulois were in post-Revolutionary France, the long-term keynotes of French law and political practice tended toward acceptance of all who stood with the Rights of Man and other key French revolutionary traditions.
In Israel, it is the ethnic nationalism that has been predominant, though there nevertheless have been some civic-nationalist aspects to Israeli politics. Thus, Palestinian-Israelis are citizens, can vote, can form political parties, and have representation in the Knesset (Parliament), though they can also fairly easily be expelled from that body. Their civic rights are fragile and less stable than those of Jewish Israelis.
What Lieberman and Netanyahu have done with this loyalty oath is to put the emphasis even further on ethnic nationalism, with Jews as the core or privileged ethnicity. They are right that it is not a new gesture, but are wrong if they think it is not a departure of sorts in the degree of emphasis on the ethnic versus the civic.
That changing balance in favor of a privileged ethnicity is why the Palestinian-Israeli politicians and community leaders are crying racism.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the oath makes Israel an Apartheid state inside the Green Line, i.e. inside 67 borders. Palestinian Israelis are citizens, can socially mix with Jewish Israelis, can go to university and attend the same schools, etc. They can even intermarry if they are willing and able to do so abroad. The oath does not make for Apartheid, but for an ethnic nationalism of the older German or Serbian sort. It is of course shameful for Jews to adopt such exclusivist political ideas, which harmed Jews so much.
It is the situation of non-Israeli Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza that more resembles Apartheid policies of creating cantonments for the Africans.