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Israel OKs loyalty bill, angering Arabs

Associated Press / October 11, 2010

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JERUSALEM — Israel’s Cabinet passed a bill yesterday that would require new non-Jewish citizens to pledge a loyalty oath to a “Jewish and democratic’’ state, language that triggered allegations of racism from Arab lawmakers who see it as undermining the rights of the country’s Arab minority.

The measure was largely symbolic; few non-Jews apply for Israeli citizenship. Nevertheless, it infuriated the Arab minority and stoked tensions with Palestinians at a time when fledgling peace talks are deadlocked over Israel’s refusal to extend a moratorium on new building in West Bank Jewish settlements.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the bill reflected the essence of Israel at a time when he said many in the world are trying to blur the connection between the Jewish people and their homeland.

“The state of Israel is the national state of the Jewish people and is a democratic state in which all its citizens — Jews and non-Jews — enjoy full equal rights,’’ he said. “Whoever wants to join us has to recognize us.’’

Ahmad Tibi, an Arab lawmaker, called the move a provocation.

“Its purpose is to solidify the inferior status of Arabs by law,’’ he said. “Netanyahu and his government are limiting the sphere of democracy in Israel and deepening the prejudice against its Arab minority.’’

Unlike their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel’s Arabs are citizens, with the right to vote, travel freely, and collect generous social benefits. But they have long experienced discrimination and second-class status. Arabs make up roughly one-fifth of Israel’s 7 million people.

While the new bill would not force Arab citizens to profess their loyalty, a non-Jewish spouse of any Israeli would have to take the oath in order to receive citizenship. Israel’s Interior Ministry said several thousand people would be affected by the measure, while Adalah, an Arab advocacy group, said the number was about 25,000. The bill presumably would not affect Jewish newcomers, who automatically receive citizenship under Israel’s “Law of Return.’’

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