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Germany debates tying citizenship to Israel loyalty

December 8, 2023

Saxony-Anhalt, a state in Germany has done what many around the country are calling for: If you want to be a citizen of Germany, you need to pledge allegiance to Israel. The legality of this remains unclear.

Israeli and German flags
The existence of Israel is a matter of state in Germany, even if it is not written in the Basic LawImage: Frank Rumpenhorst/picture alliance/dpa

Effective immediately, those applying forGerman citizenship in the east-central state of Saxony-Anhalt must declare their support for Israel's right to exist. This "commitment" is part of new language that state interior minister, Tamara Zieschang, informed relevant authorities about in a ministerial decree this week.

Failing to do so would deny naturalization to foreigners who otherwise fulfill the necessary conditions for obtaining German nationality. Under the new guidelines, applicants would have to sign a declaration that they "recognize Israel's right to exist and condemn any efforts directed against the existence of the state of Israel." 

A more thorough check of "antisemitic attitudes" would also be part of the naturalization process.

Naturalization: A state's right

Naturalization law is made at the federal level, but it's up to each of the 16 states to implement it. A similar Israel clause is currently under consideration in the Bundestag, the German parliament, which would then apply nationwide.

Would-be citizens already submit to a thorough background security check, and declare their readiness to uphold the Basic Law, which acts as Germany's constitution. Among other fundamental rights is equal protection for all people regardless of background or group belonging.

From Zieschang's perspective, the added emphasis on Israel is not redundant but further upholds rights of "human dignity and religious freedom, which exclude hatred of Jews and antisemitic attitudes," she told DW.

While both the state-level decree and federal-level debate have been put forward by the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), it has met widespread approval from other parties, including those in power. However, the three-party government coalition has expressed skepticism over how much such a statement could really do to combat anti-Israel sentiment. They also worry that Saxony-Anhalt's move would unnecessarily polarize an already tense situation.

Zieschang disagrees, seeing it as a way to help give Jewish life in her state "more and more space to flourish."

German citizenship: What's changing? 

With its focus on foreigners, her decree however would do nothing to combat the biggest threat to Jews and other minority groups in Germany. Crime statistics regularly show that homegrown white supremacy far exceeds any threat posed by foreign sources. 

Saxony-Anhalt knows that all too well when a native-born German with far-right sympathies tried to shoot his way into a synagogue in the city of Halle in 2019. He executed his plan poorly, however, and turned his sights on two, non-Jewish bystanders — killing them both.

The man received a life sentence in 2020.

More than 2,000 citizenship applications are rejected nationwide for any number of reasons, often due to falling short of requirements. Although it has one of the country's smallest foreign-born populations per capita, Sachsen-Anhalt is already overburdened with naturalization requests. Processing times can take two years or longer in some parts of the state. Similar delays are common around Germany.

Germany's 'reason of state'

Zieschang grounded her decision in Germany's "reason of state," a quasi-legal justification that makes Israel's security a national interest for Germany. The term was used by Angela Merkel, who as chancellor in 2008 used the term in an address to the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

The concept, however, is nebulous and difficult to make compatible in a democratic context. Germany's Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb) associates "Staatsräson," as it is called in German, more with "authoritarian regimes."

Germany's diplomatic tightrope walk in the Israel-Hamas war

Nonetheless, almost all German officials are on board with declaring Israel Germany's "reason of state." Chancellor Olaf Scholz has doubled down on this commitment many times since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people there.

The German public, however, appears more suspect. Only one-third of those polled by Allensbach, a research institute, in late November agreed that Germany has any kind of special historical responsibility for Israel. In its current operation to destroy Hamas, 35% of respondents said they supported Israel's right to do so, while 38% voiced a desire for Israel to show restraint.

This article was originally written in German.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau