You cannot legislate loyalty
We’ve never quite “gotten” the idea of loyalty oaths. They always seemed a little silly. Those who are loyal – to Israel, to the United States, to whatever entity might exact such a promise – will be loyal with or without such an oath. Those who are disloyal would undoubtedly feel under no compunction to say so – and might reasonably be expected to take such an oath with the equivalent of crossed fingers. What might be gained by imposing such an oath? The question should be, rather, what might be lost.
Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the right-wing party Yisrael Beiteinu, is already notorious on the world stage for proposing that Israeli citizens – Jews and Arabs alike – take a loyalty oath. Unlike the recent struggle against Hamas in Gaza, which was undertaken to protect Israelis, this is an indefensible idea. It protects no one. Nothing recommends it. Should it be implemented, it would do no good and would clearly, swiftly, do harm. Israel would lose respect, credibility, and the moral high ground.
Loyalty oaths are nothing new to America – what is the Pledge of Allegiance if not one? But U.S. history was sullied, during the McCarthy era, by the widespread requirement that educators and the like take such an oath. People who did not, and others who spoke up against it, lost their livelihoods – and often the support of their communities and friends, who were frightened for themselves. Some, who refused to “name names,” went to jail. It was a shameful, paranoid time in America, and it lost us the gifts of many blacklisted teachers, scientists, writers and artists, and political leaders.
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Israel is a democracy (although sometimes it seems like a democracy run amok, with more parties than you can shake a stick at). Israeli citizens, Arabs included, can and do vote, which is admirable. Enough voters have chosen Lieberman’s party to make him a power-broker and, quite likely, a member of the new government. Whatever else he might bring to it, we strongly urge him to leave the loyalty oath idea behind.