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Oaths

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I have never liked oaths. There is so much swearing nowadays. Oaths are taken in vain and used as common currency. Criminals swear their innocence on the Bible. Politicians swear their probity on their words of honor. Every drunk and lout speaks a language that uses more swear words than civilized language. I am ashamed to say that I allow the odd swear word to escape my lips. My late father used swear “by the bones of Bohunkus”; but he was having a laugh. As for “belief”, it is behavior that counts. Any idiot can claim he believes in anything including men from Mars.

In our religious tradition, taking God’s name in vain means, precisely, swearing using God’s name when one does not really mean it. Whole sections of the Talmud are devoted to the importance of oaths. In the old days when people took them seriously they were the most important tools available to try to find out what really happened when there was no other evidence. And to illustrate how significant religious oaths once were, there are ceremonies of annulment before Yom Kipur, and on Kol Nidrei we start off the Day of Atonement asking God to ignore our religious oaths. Who hasn’t made resolutions he has failed to keep?

So what really is the purpose of an oath, if not simply to annoy the opposition? After all, if under torture a person will say whatever is required of him, why shouldn’t someone who wants gain citizenship swear if that’s what it takes? Does the Almighty really care if I swear to be faithful to a civil constitution that humans have cobbled together and gets messed about with by whatever brand of politics its legislators are committed to? Indeed, some American Jihadists who have tried to damage their adopted country swore oaths to become citizens, and on the Koran too. So what were they thinking? All these national oaths of loyalty and arms placed in symbolic ways only remind me of narrow-minded nationalist bigots.

The Israeli cabinet has agreed to impose a loyalty oath on any non-Jew wanting Israeli citizenship. I pray the Knesset throws it out. As long ago as Samuel Johnson it was said that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” In which case, it seems to me that Avigdor Lieberman and his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, who initiated this are a bunch of scoundrels. So too are the cabinet for agreeing. I can only hope the Knesset throws it out.

People requesting citizenship will be “required to make a declaration in which they commit to being loyal to the State of Israel as a Jewish, Zionist, and democratic state, to its symbols and values, and to serve the state as much as required through military or alternative service.”

In Barak’s alternative draft, prospective citizens would be required to say, “I declare that I will be a citizen loyal to the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, in the spirit of the declaration of independence, and I am committed to honoring the laws of the state.”

What if I do not subscribe to secular Zionism? What is a democratic state? Who defines it? North Korea is called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and it is neither democratic nor do its people have any say as to how it is run. And which definition of democracy are we going to have to swear to uphold? Are not American gerrymandered voting districts undemocratic? And values? Which values? Religious? Which version and whose? Do these include economic values? I ask you.

It is meaningless twaddle, tokenism mixed with politics, seasoned with prejudice and idiocy. I protest making the distinction between Jew and non-Jew in a civil democracy. It is one thing to claim that Israel is a Jewish state; it is quite another thing to insist that its citizens swear loyalty to it. Just keep the law of the land, for goodness’ sake. Isn’t that enough? Soon, no doubt, these lunatics will try imposing oaths on nonconformist Jews too. Most of the Charedi world shares my objection to oaths. Indeed, they are no fans of democracy, and many of them opposed to the state on principle anyway. Just try forcing them to swear loyalty!

We Jews cannot even agree on a definition who a Jew is. Are we really going to ask an Arab Muslim to swear to be a Jew? How are we going to define a Jewish state for a meaningful oath? Will secular Israelis have to sear loyalty to Torah? Oaths are common, it is true, amongst the nations of the world–but they reflect the pettiness of nationalism and reinforce the jingoistic exclusionism that ideally we would like to evolve beyond.

Before World War II there was a famous debate in the Oxford Union entitled “King and Country”. By a majority vote, the students rejected the notion of “my country, right or wrong”. And this apparently persuaded Hitler that the Brits would not go to war. In the end they did, which proved that words are cheap and unreliable. It is action that counts. So it is with defending or undermining the State of Israel. Any formulation of oaths will increase negativity, rather than rally support. When it comes to standing up for one’s land, I’ll take action any time.

My theory is that just as King David, when he ran away from King Saul to Achish, pretended to be mad so as to be left alone, the current Israeli political leadership is pretending to be mad so that the peacemakers will leave them alone too.

8 thoughts on “Oaths

  1. Magnificent! You may remember that the House of Lords in England ruled that William Joyce ("Lord Haw Haw"), in using a British Passport (albeit fraudulently obtained), had sought the protection of the British Crown and thus automatically owed the British Crown sufficient allegiance to be hanged for treason – and he NEVER took an oath!!

  2. I always felt uncomfortable at Jewish Brownies having to promise to "serve the Queen", mostly because I had no idea, at six years old, what this meant. Nearly 40 years later, I am none the wiser!

  3. Gumbell:
    Thank you kindly. Yes I recall hearing my parents talk about 'Lord Haw Haw' and interestingly as I read later he always claimed he was not against the King but just the politicians. So too did Smith in Southern Rhodesia where I as briefly in 1966 (now Zimbabwe) where he had toilet paper printed with Harold Wilson's face on it! I still have some!!!
    J

  4. dk:

    Interesting point. I guess since Britain has no constitution its difficult to pledge loyalty to The Law of the Land. But the fact is the notion of loyalty to the Sovereign really goes back to the Divine Right of Kings and Feudal times. It is a complete anomally nowadays. At least Judaism does not require an oath of loyalty to anything!!!!
    Jeremy

  5. Anonymous:

    Yes, you may well be right. There are two problems; the deluded fanatics who believe they are carrying out the Divine Will, and the intellectually constipated Left Wingers who see their mission in life as entering into alliances with anyone whatsoever who may advance their cause, even to the point of appeasing fanatics (remember their love affairs with Stalin and Stalin's alliance with Hitler).
    J

  6. Greetings from Santiago de Chile. (Do not speak English and this is a google translation) I came not like your blog … I was checking something on the cantons and appeared any mention of the book of Johan Petrovsky-Stern, "Jewish in the russian army." But hey, that's not important, I wanted to express in this comment is that I read your opinions (at least 2010) and I seem lucid and relevant. Being Jewish, secular and Latin, I like knowing you can always find, in the most unexpected places-called common sense, both in human relationships as well as state.

    The string of blunders, mistakes and horrors, as the proposal of allegiance are things we as Jews must denounce. It is not easy when our kehillot is mired between fear and chauvinism, but we distinguish our "ought" Kantian or halacha, as your heritage.

    Fraternal greetings, Jorge Z.

  7. Saludos desde Santiago de Chile. Llegué no se como a tu blog… Estaba revisando algo sobre los cantonistas y apareció alguna mención sobre el libro de Johan Petrovsky-Stern, "Jewish in the russian army". Pero bueno, eso no es lo importante, lo que quería manifestar en este comentario, es que leí tus opiniones (por lo menos las del 2010) y me parecen lucidas y pertinentes. Siendo judío, secular y latinoamericano, me agrada saber que uno siempre puede encontrar -en los lugares más inesperados -llamados al sentido común- tanto en las relaciones humanas y como en las estatales.

    La seguidilla de torpezas, errores y horrores, como la propuesta del juramento de fidelidad, son cosas que como judíos debemos denunciar. No es fácil cuándo nuestras kehilot está sumidas entre el temor y el chauvinismo, pero sabemos distinguir nuestro "deber ser" kantiano o halajico, según sea tu patrimonio.

    Saludos fraternos, Jorge Z.

  8. Jorge:
    I wish I could reply in Spanish but I am delighted you got in touch. I agree with you, there are not enough Jews who are intellectually open minded enough, politcally, socially and intellectually to think independently. So good luck to you in your search for authenticity and if I can help in any way please get in touch. Though I have to say I prefer Wittgenstein to Kant!
    Jeremy

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