The Israeli government moved Sunday to adopt a controversial loyalty oath that would require Palestinians and other non-Jewish prospective citizens to swear allegiance to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state."
Supporters said the proposed amendment to Israel's citizenship law, approved Sunday by the Cabinet and expected to be adopted by the Knesset, would strengthen Israel's identity as the homeland of the Jewish people.
But critics called the measure anti-democratic and discriminatory because it would not apply to Jewish immigrants seeking Israeli citizenship and it appeared to be chiefly aimed at Palestinians applying for Israeli citizenship after marrying Arab Israelis.
At present, no groups in Israel, including soldiers, lawmakers and the prime minister, are required to pledge allegiance to a "Jewish and democratic state."
"This proposal pokes an unnecessary finger in the eye of the Arab minority," said Ahmed Tibi, a leading Arab-Israeli lawmaker. "The message it sends to the Arab minority is that they are second-, third- and fourth-class citizens."
Loyalty oaths previously have been discussed by the Cabinet but never approved. The issue reemerged last week in the context of stalled peace talks with the Palestinians. Many say Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to support the proposed law as a gesture to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party has long lobbied for it.
Left-wing political leaders said Netanyahu may be trying to soften opposition among conservatives if he decides to renew a West Bank construction freeze. The United States is pushing for a renewed moratorium as a way to keep Palestinians from quitting the talks.
Minority Affairs Minister Avishai Braverman, whose Labor Party voted against the measure, called the deal a form of "political prostitution."
The proposed law mirrors Netanyahu's recent efforts to seek formal Palestinian recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state" as part of the peace process.
Palestinians worry that the designation would open the door to state-sanctioned discrimination against Arab Israeli citizens, and affect the rights of Palestinians to reclaim land they fled during Israel's war for independence in 1948.
Israel's Declaration of Independence and its so-called basic law, often used as a de facto constitution, both already refer to Israel as a Jewish, democratic state. The term is also used widely in other laws and court rulings, but it has never been fully defined.
Some questioned whether a state can be both Jewish and democratic when one in five citizens is not Jewish and a large number of Jews consider themselves secular.
"Every group in Israeli society interprets these two words — Jewish and democratic — differently," opposition leader Tzipi Livni told reporters Sunday. Requiring would-be citizens to make the pledge "doesn't strengthen Israel as such, and only creates fear and hostility between the various groups in Israeli society."
Even among Jews, the language is controversial. Secular Jews worry that a "Jewish" state might lead to the adoption of more religious laws.
"It is liable to turn the country into a theocracy like Saudi Arabia," wrote Haaretz newspaper columnist Gideon Levy in a piece titled "The Jewish Republic of Israel."
Some ultra-Orthodox groups also oppose the notion of a " Jewish state" because it might imply that man's laws are equal or superior to biblical law.
Because the proposed law would not apply to Jewish immigrants who come to Israel under the country's "law of return," constitutional expert Suzie Navot said the proposal may be regarded as discriminatory.
But opponents would be hard-pressed to overturn the measure in court because Israel does not have a constitution, and its basic law does not specifically guarantee equality.
As a result, Arab-Israeli groups frequently complain that they face discrimination in matters such as housing and employment.
Sobelman is a news assistant in The Times' Jerusalem Bureau.