Israeli Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog is normally a soporific politician. Dressed up in a suit, he looks and sounds more like a boy about to celebrate his bar mitzvah than like a Cabinet member. Asked for a sound bite on a controversial issue, he's likely to answer with a tangle of equivocation. Herzog owes his senior status in the Labor Party to legacy -- his father's career in Labor concluded with 10 years as Israel's figurehead president, his grandfather was Israel's first chief rabbi -- and to his proven willingness to support whoever's in charge in the party. A key example: Last year he backed party leader Ehud Barak's decision to join Benjamin Netanyahu's government, over the objections of Knesset colleagues who recalled that Labor once had principles.
Herzog, therefore, is not a guy you'd expect to use the f-word when describing the country's direction under that same government. But he did last weekend. "Fascism," he said, "is licking at the edges of the camp, and we're not paying attention to it. We're on a slippery and very dangerous slope." When Isaac Herzog talks about fascism, something serious has to be wrong.
The immediate cause of Herzog's warning was a bill that received the Cabinet's backing Sunday morning, on its way to Knesset approval. An amendment to Israel's citizenship law, it would change the requirement for naturalization from simply declaring loyalty to Israel -- to affirming loyalty to Israel as "a Jewish and democratic state."
Let me parse that. First, the amendment doesn't apply to people coming to Israel under the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to Jews or people with Jewish fathers or grandfathers. (The definition of being Jewish, in the law as in traditional Judaism, is having a Jewish mother.) That is, only people with no ethnic connection to being Jewish will have to affirm loyalty to Israel as a "Jewish state."
Second, the bill requires new citizens to declare fealty to a political stance and is doubly flawed because the meaning of that stance is unclear. There are already laws defining Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state," but that term is a subject of intense domestic debate. Most Palestinian citizens of Israel, along with a minority of Jews, want the label dropped and replaced with "a state of all its citizens."
Those who affirm that the country is a "Jewish state" don't agree at all on what that means. A minimalist, liberal interpretation is that it should have a Jewish majority, so that it's natural for the main -- but not necessarily only -- language, culture, and calendar to be Jewish. Another view, held by clerical parties in Netanyahu's coalition, is that "Jewish" is a religious term and the state should impose some aspects of religious law. On the right, there are people who clearly believe that "Jewish state" means an ethnocracy, belonging to and promoting the welfare of those who are in some way ethnically Jewish, with non-Jews tolerated if they behave nicely.
What meaning does the Cabinet-backed amendment want citizens to affirm? In "Jewish and democratic," does "Jewish" limit the extent of democracy, or "democratic" place a clear boundary on the extent of "Jewish"? Without knowing the answers to those question, many Israeli Jews -- including the Israeli writing this column -- would be unable to affirm commitment to a "Jewish and democratic state. That's putting aside for the moment objections to a loyalty oath as such.
But then, we won't have to. The law will only affect that small number of non-Jewish immigrants -- such as Jordanian-born Palestinian spouses of Israeli-born Palestinians. The real point of the bill is symbolic. It's a down payment on fulfilling the campaign slogan of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's far-right Israel Is Our Home Party: "No Citizenship Without Loyalty." The utterly unhidden message is that Palestinian citizens make up a fifth column. Lieberman believes it's impossible for two nationalities to live in the same country. His goal is a law that would require everyone in the country to declare loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state in order to hold citizenship -- with the clear intent of denying citizenship to the Palestinian minority, along with "disloyal" leftist Jews.
The amendment to the Citizenship Law is not an isolated matter. The Netanyahu coalition is on a campaign to undo democracy. The Cabinet has already backed a bill popularly known as the "Nakba Law," introduced by a member of Lieberman's party. It would cut state funding to anybody -- say, a community center, scout troop, or dance troupe in an Israeli Arab town -- that commemorates the Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948 on the anniversary of Israeli independence.
Knesset Member Zevulun Orlev of the Jewish Home Party has submitted a bill to amend the current law against incitement to racism. The bill would make "incitement for the negation of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state" punishable by a year in prison. Another bill, submitted by Ze'ev Elkin of Netanyahu's Likud Party, would impose civil damages on anyone calling for any kind of boycott on Israel or areas "under the control of the state of Israel" -- including a boycott on products of West Bank settlements. This is just a sample. The full list [PDF] of anti-democratic bills before the Knesset is much longer.
Since Sunday's Cabinet meeting, Israeli pundits have debated whether the amendment to the Citizenship Law expresses Netanyahu's dearest beliefs or shows that he's Lieberman's marionette. It doesn't much matter. That bill and the others show the ruling coalition's real priorities and give the lie to Netanyahu's weak endorsement of a two-state solution. Former rightists who have really come around to that solution recognize that it's immoral, or at least impractical, for Israel to continue ruling over disenfranchised Palestinians in the West Bank. The wave of bills is aimed at disenfranchising Palestinian citizens of Israel, and anyone else whose nationalism doesn't meet the required threshold.
On Monday, legislator Roni Bar-On of the opposition Kadimah Party approached Isaac Herzog in the Knesset. Kadimah is the party of recovering rightists; Bar-On was once a Likud member and Netanyahu crony. "You're the third generation of aristocracy. Today you're a member of a fascist government." Herzog didn't answer. He's not ready yet for the only response that would demonstrate integrity or possession of a backbone: resigning as minister, ending his career as a substitute for sleeping pills, and trying to awake the country to the danger it faces.