Any hope that bringing Israel's right wing party, Yisrael Beiteinu, into government and making its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, Foreign Minister would blunt its extremist edge has been rudely shattered. Barely had the ink dried on the coalition agreement than one of the party's members introduced a bill making it punishable by three years' imprisonment for any Israeli Arab to mark Nakba, the Palestinian day of mourning for lost lands which coincides with Israel's independence day. At the same time, Yisrael Beiteinu's spokesman announced his party's intention to bring forth legislation enforcing an oath of loyalty to Israel as a "Jewish state".
One can see the populist appeal of these measures. Lieberman owed much of his success in the recent election (his party was the third largest in the vote) to playing the "loyalty card" at a time when Israel's Arab citizens were openly critical of the invasion of Gaza. What he and his party now want are measures which force the one million Arab citizens in the country to pledge absolute loyalty to the state.
The Nakba bill, which was approved by the ministerial committee on legislation this week, is bad enough. But the bill for a compulsory oath, which is also due to go before the committee, would be a disaster. It would require anyone seeking citizenship to "make a declaration in which they commit to being loyal to the State of Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state, to its symbols and values and to serve the state as much as required through military or alternative service". Arab citizens at the moment are not required to do military service given the sensitivities of their situation.
There are many in the British National Party who would no doubt like a similar oath over here. But any democracy committed to freedom of expression knows that the road to oppression lies though just such attempts to control the thoughts of its people. And that is especially true of Israel, whose founding fathers expressly committed the new nation to principles of freedom of expression and protection of minorities. Of course Israel is a Jewish state. But it is also a democracy set in an Arab world. Its founders knew that. Let us hope that its current legislature does too.
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