Opinion Articles

Loyalty is Not a Value

What does “loyalty” mean? Loyalty to whom? The way in which these bills use this term implies that loyalty requires, as a necessary condition, the rejection of a concrete, identifiable alternative. Thus, for example, loyalty between two marriage partners requires the rejection of loyalty to other partners. In the realm of religion, loyalty to God is not compatible with loyalty to the Emperor. In this spirit, the inauspicious bills currently being considered by the Knesset require Israeli Arabs to be loyal to the Jewish State, and as such, are asking them to reject part of their internal identity, of their distant dream.

It should be stressed that this interpretation of “loyalty” cannot serve as a basis for revoking the rights of Israeli Arab citizens. Citizenship is not a “reward” or “punishment”; it is the basic unit underlying the covenant on which the State of Israel was established, and gives force to its laws. Civil equality is not conditional.

Nevertheless, Israeli public discourse on loyalty is not sufficiently aware of another, deeper meaning of the concept of loyalty. According to the American philosopher Josiah Royce, loyalty is a person’s devotion to a cause, a person’s internal way of relating to his or her ideal values. Loyal people asks themselves—not others—whether they are loyal, and they are prepared to make personal sacrifices in order to narrow the gap between their real and ideal worlds.

Accordingly, the only question that can be asked of others is whether they are loyal to their own worlds; whether they are “loyal to loyalty” itself. Loyalty is thus not a value in and of itself; rather, it is a person’s internal approach to his or her values. When people are loyal to their own values, even though each person affirms different values, a pluralistic space is created that does not conflict with the demand for loyalty; on the contrary, it fulfills the demand for loyalty.

What are the implications of this approach for the Knesset’s demand for an oath of loyalty to the state? Loyalty is not just the way in which people relate to themselves; rather, it also pertains to the way in which they relate to the group with which they identify and which they see as worthy of their loyalty. Individuals or groups that are loyal not only to themselves but also to others are loyal to others because they see the group as having value and meaning for their lives. This is true of the fans of the Jewish Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, as well as of the fans of the Arab Bnei Sakhnin team. Consequently, the question of the loyalty of Israeli Arabs to the State of Israel is a question they must answer for themselves.

When the Israeli Knesset chooses to stand Israeli Arabs in a “loyalty lineup,” in the first sense of the term, it is seeking to achieve an ugly goal: the exclusion and removal of Israeli Arabs from the public sphere. Since Israeli Arabs live here in Israel, it is impossible to remove them completely. It is possible, however, to make things difficult for them, to strike at the core of their identity, and to exclude them gradually.

The demand for loyalty in its exclusionary sense is, in the terminology of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, an attempt to blot out the “face” of the other and is a violation of the imperative “Thou shall not commit murder.” The discourse about loyalty in the legislation that the Knesset is seeking to enact is thus liable to arm the state with weapons that are not supposed to be in its arsenal.

Liberal democracies do not test the morality, values, or internal world of their constituents. Similarly, liberal democracies are not entitled to penetrate into the realm of a person’s loyalties.

There is only one requirement for citizens, no matter what their loyalty may be: obedience to the rules of the game that are embodied in the legal system. The state must not encroach into the individual’s autonomous space; on the contrary, the state must leave this space open in order to allow for the great diversity that characterizes human existence.


This article was originally published in Hebrew in Haaretz on October 15, 2010, and has been translated and published with permission.

Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern is Vice President of the Israel Demoracy Institute and a Professor of Law at Bar-Ilan University. Prof. Avi Sagi is a Professor of Philosophy at Bar-Ilan University and a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.