Israelispeak is the way Israelis and the Israeli media use Hebrew. Behind the literal meaning, there’s an additional web of suggestion, doublespeak, and cultural innuendo that too often gets lost in translation. Every Friday, we reveal what is really being said.
In the winter of 2009, Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party campaigned under the slogan, “Bli ne’emanut ein ezrahut”: No loyalty, no citizenship.
This week, the Israeli cabinet voted in favor of a bill that, unless the Knesset shoots it down, would require new non-Jewish citizens to pledge allegiance to a “Jewish and democratic state.” There are a few Hebrew terms for this oath: Hatzharat ne’emanut, or “declaration of loyalty,” which includes a word that, as Lieberman has discovered, has the advantage of sort of rhyming with the Hebrew word for “citizenship”; hatzharat emunim, or “declaration of allegiance”; and shvu’at emunim, which means “oath of allegiance” and is also the Hebrew title for the 2003 movie Pledge of Allegiance.
These terms have in common the Hebrew root that also appears in the word emunah, meaning belief, faith, trust, or confidence, often in a religious context. The same root is also used in a term that frequently comes up on Israel’s version of C-SPAN: Hatza’at ee-eemun, or no-confidence motion.
In Israel, a no-confidence motion passed by the Knesset can topple the government (as it once did, in 1990), but only if a majority of the total number of Knesset members votes in favor. While the goal is ostensibly to bring down the government, these motions are more often used by opposition parties to grab attention. When Israel was hit with triple-digit inflation and the outbreak of the First Intifada in the 1980s, the 11th Knesset proposed a whopping 165 no-confidence motions, not one of which brought down the government. And earlier this year, the Knesset actually passed a no-confidence measure—to no effect on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, because most of the Knesset members didn’t vote.
No-confidence motions are often overused gimmicks, and though the government faced several when the Knesset’s winter session opened this week, there was nary a mention of them. Similarly, the loyalty oath won’t actually affect that many people, since the vast majority of new immigrants are considered Jewish under Israel’s Law of Return and would therefore be exempt from taking it.
And likewise, the proposed hatzharat ne’emanut is partly symbolic, and the latest way for politicians to show that they’re bigger Zionists than the next guy.
But the loyalty oath debate reverberates far beyond the Knesset plenum. Intentionally or not, the cabinet’s endorsement of the oath bellows to Israel’s Arab citizens, and to the world, that Israel sees religion as a core component of its citizens’ status and is confident that reciting the proper words constitutes a value in its own right—a position that, even for some of Israel’s most loyal citizens, may require too large a leap of emunah.
Earlier: ‘After the Holidays’