The Israeli Knesset is debating a bill proposed by David Rotem of the extreme right Yisrael Beiteinu party that would require all Israeli citizens to swear loyalty to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.” This bill is targeted at increasing pressure on the twenty percent of Israelis who are Palestinian citizens while forcing the ultra Orthodox Jewish minority who reject the legitimacy of any state not based on Jewish biblical law to accept Zionism. If passed in its proposed form, citizens unwilling to take the loyalty oath would be at risk of losing citizenship.
Israeli leaders committed to a classic secular political Zionist platform have always fought at all costs to guard Israel’s “Jewish character,” even while they reveal their inability to properly define exactly what it is. The loyalty oath and push for a two-state solution are the most profound examples of the insecurity that has roiled beneath the surface in Jewish Israeli society since the state’s inception. Without a Jewish majority exhibiting clear legal and political dominance over the non-Jewish or non-Zionist minority, the Zionist movement becomes meaningless. So as the Palestinian-Israeli minority actively resists its dispossession and the ultra-Orthodox stubbornly reject the concept of a Jewish state, the Israeli establishment feels increasingly compelled to seek draconian measures to salvage its vision of Zionism.
The loyalty oath was one of the main platform issues for Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s far right Yisrael Beitenu party when it campaigned in 2009. “No citizenship without loyalty,” was among Lieberman’s most effective campaign slogans (his other slogan: “Only Lieberman speaks Arabic”), helping guide his party to an astonishing third place, with 15 of the 120 seats in Israeli Parliament. The draft bill currently debated in the Parliament would allow the Interior Ministry to strip even native Israelis of their nationality if they refused to swear allegiance to the Jewish state and “its symbols and values,” and failed to profess their willingness to perform military service. Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, has expressed support for Yisrael Beiteinu’s loyalty crusade.
After the proposed law failed its first reading in the Knesset due to opposition from a handful of liberal members of the ruling Likud party, Yisrael Beiteinu released the following statement: “Yisrael Beitenu will continue to act for Israel’s basis as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state and will fight against disloyalty and the negative exploitation of Israeli democracy.” In July, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet has approved a similar bill requiring all new citizens to take an oath of loyalty to the Jewish state. The measure would make attaining citizenship nearly impossible for Palestinians residing inside Israel.
The following month, we met the loyalty bill’s author, David Rotem, at his home in the illegal West Bank settlement of Efrat. A self-described “very Zionistic” politician with a hulking frame and a pronounced limp resulting from a bout of polio, Rotem described in a gravely voice his vision of Israeli democracy. “Tyranny of the majority is the heart of democracy,” he declared. “Call it what you want but democracy is the rule of the majority. And it’s not a tyranny if the majority decides against the minorities.”
Besides the loyalty oath bill, political factions ranging from far-right settler parties to opposition leader Tzipi Livni’s centrist Kadima Party have proposed no less than 14 pieces of legislation this year which the Association for Civil Rights in Israel defines as anti-democratic. (Rotem is the author of six of the bills). They include laws that would send citizens to jail for encouraging the rejection of Israel as a Jewish state, strip filmmakers of state funding if their work was deemed anti-Israel, and prosecute any Israeli who publishes material calling for a boycott of Israel. Other lesser-publicized bills have been introduced to block Palestinian residents of Israel from returning to confiscated land or from reuniting with family members from the West Bank or Gaza.
While leftist Israelis chant, “Fascism will not pass!” at demonstrations in East Jerusalem, former Knesset member and commentator Yossi Sarid entitled a recent column, “Fascism is already here.” Citing the swath of anti-democratic bills being debated in the Knesset, the support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet have offered for most of them, and the near total lack of opposition from the Israeli mainstream, Sarid remarked, “Israeli democracy is mainly for decoration, like a tree grown for its beauty, not to bear fruit. Few people actually use it or the rights it affords.”
Of all the anti-democratic bills recently introduced in the Knesset, Rotem’s loyalty law carries the most disturbing undertones, recalling some of the darkest periods in recent history. Well before the Nazi government initiated its campaign of genocide against Germany’s Jewish minority, its political leadership introduced the “stab-in-the-back” legend, accusing Jews in a virtual mantra of disloyalty to the German army and a general lack of patriotism. During the anticommunist furor of America’s McCarthy era, teachers and lawmakers in several states were forced to sign loyalty oaths to prove they were not “subversive,” prompting a crackdown on public servants, including a disproportionate number of Jews, who believed their constitutional rights were being violated.
In Israel, a right-wing student group called Im Tirtzu which has gained endorsements from Netanyahu and his education minister Gideon Saar has demanded a purge of all “post-Zionist and anti-Zionist” professors from the university system. To support Im Tirtzu’s campaign, a popular Israeli singer named Amir Benayoun recorded a song hectoring Israeli leftists and Arabs for “knifing” Israel in the back. It contained the following lyrics:
After they failed to kill me from the outside
You come and kill me from inside
I always charge forward with my back to you
But you sharpen the knife
An Experiment In Fascism
With a fascist mood permeating Israeli government and society, we set out into the streets of central Jerusalem to engage young revelers on the issue of loyalty. Because Israel is debating legislation claiming that it is alone the Jewish sovereign state and has the authority to speak in the name of the “Jewish people,” we thought that the opinions of supporters of Israel from the Jewish diaspora were an essential element in any discussion about the proposed loyalty bill. Given the already simmering controversy over ‘dual loyalty’ in the United States, the topic needed to be explored thoroughly and unflinchingly. Did the Zionist loyalty oath represent a fulcrum point in the ‘dual loyalty’ debate for diaspora Jews? Would diaspora Jews have any objection to taking an oath to defend the Jewish state? If so, did that put their allegiance to their country of residence in question?
Ultimately, we sought to determine the extent to which the Jewish public in Israel and abroad was ready to accept fascism in any form. To get a better sense of public opinion — an incomplete snapshot, but a sense nonetheless — we asked interview subjects if they would swear before our camera an oath of loyalty to the Jewish state. Our oath was deliberately crafted with the most provocative language possible, based almost word-for-word on the Führereid, or the oath that Wehrmacht soldiers had to swear to Adolph Hitler from 1934 to 1945.
The Wehrmacht oath read as follows:
I swear by God this holy oath, that I want to offer unconditional obedience to the Fuhrer of the German Empire and people, Adolf Hitler, the commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht, and be prepared as a brave soldier to risk my life for this oath at any time.
And here is the oath of loyalty to the Jewish state that our interview subjects read on camera:
I swear by Hashem [the Jewish God] that I want to offer unconditional loyalty to the Jewish state of Israel, to its leaders and the commanders of its Jewish army. I am prepared as a loyal supporter of the Jewish state to risk my life for this oath at any time.
Were we suggesting that the Jewish state of Israel represented a new incarnation of Hitler’s Third Reich? Of course not. We repudiate sweeping comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany as shallow and ahistorical. Instead, we imagined our video project as a version of the “Third Wave” experiment undertaken by history teacher Ron Jones at Cubberly High School in Southern California in 1967.
Seeking to demonstrate the susceptibility of average citizens to fascism, Jones ordered his students to accept a regimen of strict discipline and community including sig heil salutes, responding to questions while standing and in three words or less, and carrying membership cards at all times. “Strength through discipline,” was the motto of the movement Jones claimed to be promoting. By the fourth day of the experiment, the students’ enthusiasm for the project had spread to other classes throughout the school. Finally, Jones ordered his students to attend a rally where a presidential candidate from their “Third Wave” movement would announce his candidacy. When the students arrived, however, Jones revealed to them that they had been subjects in an experiment about the appeal of fascism, and that they had eagerly replicated the structure of Nazi German society.
Our own experiment exposed an equally disturbing trend among the young Israelis and Jewish supporters of Israel we spoke to. In some cases, our interview subjects eagerly requested to read the loyalty oath on camera without any prompting, and added their own personal touch to it — usually they emphasized phrases like “Jewish state” and “Jewish army.” These subjects were generally new immigrants who had left their families behind in order to join the army and a brand new life in Israel. Jewish internationals (most were studying at Jerusalem-area yeshivas for the year) who took the oath defended it on the basis that Israel was a state for the Jews, and therefore did not have to comply with the regulations of normal Western democracies. Only two interviewees refused to take the oath. Though they based their refusal on the possibility that Israel might commit grave human rights crimes in the distant future, they were admittedly unable to define the nature of the abuses that would turn them against the state.
If our interviews demonstrated anything, it is that anyone in any country can fall prey to the psychological lures of fascism. Jews are no exception.