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Proposed Loyalty Oath Stirs Anger of Israeli-Arab Minority

A push by Israeli leaders to require all new immigrants to recognize the country as a Jewish and democratic state is causing outrage among Israel's 1.5-million-strong Arab minority, most of whom are Muslim. Israeli leaders are concerned, among other things, by the reluctance of Palestinian leaders to acknowledge Israel as the Jewish state.

The Israeli cabinet has given preliminary approval to the proposed measure, saying it is part of an effort to protect Israel's Jewish character and ensure its existence.

For 81-year-old Youssef Ahmad, the memory of Israel's 1948 war of independence still brings pain. His entire family was killed when a Jewish bomb destroyed their home.

Youssef's children and grandchildren - like many residents of this town inside Israel - feel they were lucky. Unlike many of their neighbors in the area, they did not end up in refugee camps in the West Bank. Abu Ghosh stayed neutral, and this remained their home.

Youssef's granddaughter, Mervet, says she grew up seeing Jews as friendly neighbors. She wants to believe that the pain of war belongs to her grandfather's generation. "What we want today, is to continue life. We want coexistence between Arabs and Jews. We want to be like one family, and to forget what happened and open a new page," she said.

But Youssef's wife says Israel's insistence on having the country recognized as a Jewish state threatens to create divisions in one of the few places they did not exist before. "We cannot recognize a Jewish state. This is racism. They want to separate us. They want to separate Arabs and Jews," Umm Mohammed said.

The law would require all persons applying for Israeli citizenship, regardless of their religion, to recognize Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Behind the measure are right-wing members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet. They say they want to protect Israel's Jewish character. Cabinet member Uzi Landau of the Yisrael Beitenu party:

"Only those who have a problem with the very existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state might have a problem there. That is exactly why we think we at least should have this declaration by every individual who wishes to become a future citizen of Israel," Landau said.

The U.S. Department of State says Jews make up roughly 76 percent of Israel's population, while Arabs account for about 20 percent. Arab birth rates are higher, triggering concern among some Israelis that the Arabs may one day overwhelm the Jews.

Also fueling Israeli concerns are lingering sentiments among some Palestinians who claim all of modern Israel as Palestinian land.

But that is not the case in Abu Ghosh. With Jewish West Jerusalem only minutes away, the town has long been a model of coexistence between Arabs and Jews.

Storefronts advertise in both Arabic and Hebrew.

Youssef owns a successful plant nursery. Jewish Israelis are regular customers.

He says that while the oath would only apply to a few, it's a step toward disharmony that was largely absent in Abu Ghosh.

"Until today, there are many Arabs who believe that Israel is for them and for the Jewish people. But now, when they discriminate and say this country is just for Jews, they are sowing hatred among the Arabs who are inside Israel against the Israeli state," he said.

Youssef worries that his grandchildren may in the future be outsiders.

For him, the wounds of the past are not healing. They are becoming deeper.