Loyalty acts, not loyalty oaths

By GIL TROY Jerusalem Post, 10-13-10 

Talking Peace
Photo by: lior Mizrahi (AP)

We need a renewed covenant between the country’s citizens and its government – not meaningless mouthings targeting Israel’s Arabs.

Trying to preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic character by imposing loyalty oaths like the one the Netanyahu government is proposing makes as much sense as trying to solve America’s unemployment crisis by simply declaring the recession over. Words have meaning. They can set tones, define directions, articulate visions, reaffirm core values and, when done right, inspire confidence. But in building national identities – as with managing national economies – changing behaviors trumps pronouncements. 

Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, with its pluralistic population in all its glorious contradictions, depends on loyalty acts, not loyalty oaths. We need a renewed covenant between the country’s citizens and its government – not meaningless mouthings targeting Israel’s Arabs.

In an age of multiple identities and mobile populations, all Western democracies struggle, trying to balance patriotism and pluralism, nationalism and cosmopolitanism. Nineteenth-century romantic nationalism found unity in sameness. Countries were built on shared senses of history, community and destiny. The nationalist ideal assumed interlocking, mutually-reinforcing identities. Thus the Englishman would be Protestant, white and British; the Italian would be Catholic, white and Italian.

These nationalists got it half right. The nation-states they created remain our defining political unit. But the Disraelis and Garibaldis of yesteryear would be shocked to see how people of different races, colors, and creeds now share common citizenships. Today, there are British Pakistanis and black Italians.

Human beings are complex – as are the societies we create. We can juggle different feelings, loyalties and identities. Modern democratic nations have to figure out how to inspire some harmony amid the cacophony.

Even in the US, which always had a more diverse population, traditional assumptions of unity now conflict with the attempt to forge a national identity in a teeming, polyglot, multicultural society. Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt would recognize few people in Manhattan today as “typical” Americans. Continuing clashes about illegal immigration, mosques near Ground Zero and persistent African-American poverty demonstrate the messes of modern nation-building .

ISRAELI DEMOCRACY offers its own variation. The Jewish people are entitled to a nation-state like other peoples. The Jewish state – unlike its Middle Eastern neighbors – is democratic. And history’s particularities have created a Jewish state including 1.5 million Arabs, who are neither Jewish nor necessarily excited about the country’s founding Zionist vision.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence promises all citizens civic equality, be they Jewish, Christian, Muslim or atheist; black, white or brown; long-standing Jewish Jerusalemite, Holocaust survivor, Jewish refugee from Arab lands or Arab villager from the Galilee. As with other Western nations, Israeli national identity can be defined enough to have a Jewish character and forge a Jewish public space, but elastic enough to offer full citizenship and rights to, say, a Palestinian who harbors resentment that there even is a Jewish state. Does that create identity confusion, legal contradictions and political tensions? Certainly. But are these problems that cannot be resolved or reasons to view the Jewish nation state as something to be dissolved? Certainly not.

Israel needs a smart, enlightened, citizenship policy to maximize individual rights while working out the complexities of minority groups’ collective rights. Focusing on loyalty acts, not loyalty oaths, would start with the government ensuring that Arab schools are as well-funded as Jewish schools, and that every Israeli Arab feels empowered to live freely and prosper in the Middle East’s one truly democratic state.

Good citizenship and good governance both demand mutuality; in fulfilling its obligations to its citizens, the state also makes demands. We need universal national service, not loyalty oaths. Every young Israeli – male or female, religious or secular, Arab or Jew – should devote a minimum of two years to national service. Considering Arabs’ current sensitivities, we should only compel their service within Israeli Arab political units or institutions. But they should have opportunities to volunteer in venues that serve the entire nation – and that could get young Israeli Muslims, Christians and Jews working together. Such actions would encourage much more social cohesion than any combination of words force-fed down people’s throats.

YES, ISRAEL is being judged by yet another double standard. When Canadian immigrants swear allegiance to the queen, it is charmingly anachronistic. When Americans pledge allegiance to the flag, it is red-white-and-blue patriotic. Yet when Israelis propose loyalty oaths, it becomes oppressive.

Still, while Binyamin Netanyahu’s so-called nationalist government must do more to boost patriotism and Zionism, why start with meaningless, controversial declarations? Why not start fostering pride by fixing the education system, cleaning the streets, fighting crime? Why not create a vision of Zionist civics that includes haredim and Arabs, who frequently use state funds to carve out anti-Zionist collective identities? Nationalism is best nurtured, not dictated; loyalty is best earned, not proclaimed. We need a politics inspiring a sense of mutual obligation, not generating confrontation. We need policies that encourage rather than compel.

The best patriotism is the quiet patriotism of millions of lives well-lived, with citizens appreciating how blessed they are to live where they live, under the government they voted in, in the society to which they freely belong. The loud, aggressive patriotism of bluster and bullying is not just fleeting but counter-productive. Many have argued recently that in an age in which Israel is being delegitimized, headlines about loyalty oaths only make matters worse. I worry about the civic fallout more than the diplomatic fallout. In an age of cosmopolitanism coexisting uncomfortably with nationalism, we accomplish more with the light touch than the heavy hand. We need good citizens not resentful subjects, good government not posturing politicians.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University, and a Shalom Hartman Institute research fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. giltroy@gmail.com

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