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Provisional Loyalty to a Provisional State

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Each of us gets to decide whether to follow the rules or change them. In Hebrew we call this 'combina,' a slang word referring to the bypassing of rules or commitments.

A historic event passed almost unnoticed on Sunday. A group of some 200 intellectuals and other public figures gathered in front of Independence Hall in Tel Aviv to declare, "We, citizens of Israel ... shall not be citizens of the country purporting to be the State of Israel."

Actress Hanna Maron, channeling David Ben-Gurion, cited a section from the 1948 Declaration that promises equality and justice for all.It was the amended loyalty oath, as proposed in a bill approved by the cabinet that day, that triggered Maron and her colleagues to make their dramatic but empty gesture.

I share their disgust with the oath, which if passed by the Knesset would theoretically require non-Jews who become naturalized citizens to declare their allegiance to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state." Still, I'm not interested in joining the left-wing outcry that calls the vote another step on Israel's journey from democracy to fascism. Viewed from the United States, Israel seems to me very democratic and Jewish. Perhaps too much so.

Clearly, Hanna Maron remains a loyal Israeli citizen, despite her declarations. Indeed, if there is a definition of democracy that all Israelis, left and right, Jew and Arab, secular and religious can embrace wholeheartedly, it is that anyone should be free to commit to anything without having to follow through on their vows.

Prime Minister Levi Eshkol provided the key to deciphering Israel when he supposedly dismissed the principle of accountability by saying: "It's true that I promised, but I didn't promise to keep my promise."

Read the government's resolution from Sunday, and you'll see how Israeli it is. It amends the existing Citizenship Law, even as the original 1952 law continues to be overridden by a provisional law, which is extended periodically (by law), this time "for six months" -- until January 31, 2011. You read that right. Neither the government nor the Knesset is concerned about continuity. We're just passing through.

No media outlet I've seen has interviewed a single person who has ever taken the original 1952 oath of citizenship or tried to estimate the number of people who may be required to take the new oath. Why bother? The oath is just a hypothetical exercise -- if you will, a Talmudic-style dispute -- that exists primarily to fire up debate between leftist and rightist Jews.

Both left and right ignore the way in which Israel's law of naturalization has been marginalized from its legislation in 1952. A "temporary" law effectively makes the interior minister the country's gatekeeper, free to decide on an ad-hoc basis whom to let in.

The current minister is not progressive, and he exercises his discretion accordingly. If a left-winger from Hanna Maron's group were premier, she would probably appoint a friendlier interior minister and redefine the oath, but would not go as far as establishing the rule of law by revoking the gap between a promise and a promise kept.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that Avigdor Lieberman is any different. Even this newcomer quickly learned the Israeli rules of the game: Each of us gets to decide whether to follow the rules or change them. In Hebrew we call this "combina," a slang word referring to the bypassing of rules or commitments.

Lieberman may justify his move by pointing to other democracies, like the United States. Indeed, in America, naturalization requires an oath of allegiance, exemplifying Lieberman's slogan, "Without loyalty, there is no citizenship." But the American oath is nothing like Israel's. To become a U.S. citizen, one commits to "support and defend" the country's constitution and laws, through military service, if necessary. Neither Hanna Maron, Barak nor Lieberman would dream of copying the Americans and demand from newcomers, particularly non-Jewish ones, a commitment to bear arms, although this is the most effective test of loyalty.

Yes, in Israel, Jewish immigrants are often drafted into the army, but this is independent of naturalization. Jews are drafted after they immigrate and claim the Right of Return, which is not conditioned on any commitment. Sadly, the new Israeli oath is the most appropriate one for the country. To become Israeli, you are required to participate in the endless debate that has vexed our people since as far back as Herzl's diaries: Can Israel be both Jewish and democratic?

The oath of citizenship engages Maron and Lieberman in a drama of definitions and symbols, with no connection to a real-life commitment. We are all familiar with the Declaration of Independence's reference to the "natural and historic right" of the Jewish people and its promise of justice and equality, but not as much with the fundamental principle of combina in the same document.

Ben-Gurion stated the Founders' first concrete commitment: "We declare that, with effect from the moment of the termination of the Mandate being tonight, the eve of Sabbath, the 6th of Iyar, 5708 (15th May, 1948 ), until the establishment of the elected, regular authorities of the state in accordance with the constitution which shall be adopted by the Elected Constituent Assembly not later than the 1st October 1948, the People's Council shall act as a Provisional Council of State, and its executive organ, the People's Administration, shall be the Provisional Government of the Jewish State, to be called 'Israel.'"

Did you get that? That we don't have a constitution today is of course due to the founders' combina.

Yoav Sivan is an Israeli journalist in New York. His website is www.yoavsivan.com.

The article originally appeared on Haaretz here.