Several weeks ago, hundreds of students demonstrated in front of Ben-Gurion University’s administration building. About a third of the protestors were expressing their opposition to the government’s decision to attack the relief flotilla, while the remaining two thirds came to support the government. At one point the pro-government protesters began chanting: ‘No citizenship without loyalty!’
While loyalty is no doubt an important form of relationship both in the private and public spheres, unpacking its precise meaning in the Israeli context reveals a disturbing process whereby the democratic understanding of politics is being inverted.
As Israeli citizens, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman want us to prove our loyalty to the flag by supporting a policy of oppression and humiliation. We must champion the separation barrier in Bi’lin and in other places throughout the West Bank. We have to defend the brutal destruction of unrecognized Bedouin villages, and the ongoing land grab both inside Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We must support the checkpoints and the silent transfer in East Jerusalem. We are also expected to bow our heads and remain silent every time government ministers, Knesset members and public officials make racist statements against Arab citizens. We must support the neo-liberal policies that continuously oppress Israel’s poor, and we are obliged to give our blessing to the imprisonment of Gaza Strip’s 1.5 million residents.
Hearing the chants at the recent demonstration, I understood that I will never be able to accept this disastrously myopic form of loyalty. I refuse to be loyal to a policy of humiliation, racism and discrimination. And, yet, loyalty is an important issue that urgently needs to be discussed because ultimately there is a firm link between the state and loyalty. The pressing questions that need to be addressed are: What is the meaning of loyalty? And who is supposed to be loyal to whom?
Surprisingly, the answer to these questions is not particularly complex. According to the republican tradition, the state is first and foremost obliged to be loyal to its citizenry and is held accountable for inequities and injustices. Yet we are currently witnessing a complete reversal of the republican relationship between state and loyalty and the adoption, instead, of a proto-fascist approach.
Perhaps the most disturbing feature of this trend is that it is taking place on all levels of Israeli society. From the ongoing attacks against Israeli human rights organizations spearheaded by NGO Monitor and Im Tirzu, through the police response to the peaceful protests in Sheik Jarrah, and all the way to the McCarthyist atmosphere in the Knesset Education Committee, one witnesses how elements within civil society, the executive branch and the legislative branch are all working according to a logic similar to the one that informed Mussolini’s Italy. All of these elements expect citizens to swear loyalty to the state regardless of the government’s policies.
However, because loyalty is a vital component of politics, we need to strive to ensure that the call for loyalty meet the requirements of a democratic rather than a fascist logic. We must demand that the state be loyal to all of its citizens, regardless of race, color, sex, gender, language, religion, political opinions, national or social origin, property, or birth status.
A state that is loyal to its citizens does not discriminate between Jews and Arabs, does not expropriate land from Muslims and Christians, does not humiliate and trample on the lower classes, and does not brutally oppress the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. A state of this sort protects the rights of each and every citizen and, thus, will not need to demand loyalty because it will receive loyalty on a silver platter.
Yes, I too understand the importance of loyalty. But the appropriate chant is not ‘No citizenship without loyalty!’ but rather “Loyalty to every citizen!”
NEVE GORDON is an Israeli activist and the author of and author of Israel’s Occupation (University of California Press, 2008).