At least 50,000 partake in Druze-led protest against contested nation-state law
Some 50,000 Israelis demonstrated in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Saturday against a controversial law declaring Israel the nation state of the Jewish people, in a protest led by the country's Druze minority.
According to organizers, the aim of the protest was to show the “importance in preserving the democratic character of the State of Israel” for all of its citizens.
The impact of the law on Israel's Druze minority was a particular focus of the rally, with senior figures from the Druze community delivering speeches and many participants waving the multi-colored Druze flag.
“Despite our unlimited loyalty to the state, the state doesn’t consider us equals,” Druze spiritual leader Sheikh Muafak Tarif said in a speech at the rally. "The military cemeteries and hundreds of martyrs testify to this, and as we fight for the existence of the state, we are determined to fight for the right to live with equality and dignity."
"We have never dared to challenge the Jewish identity of the state, and no one can teach us what sacrifice is, and no one can preach loyalty to us," Tarif said.
The highly-contested nation-state Basic Law passed by a 62-55 margin in parliament last week, speaks of Israel as the historic homeland of the Jews and says they have a "unique" right to self-determination within its borders. Israel, which lacks a traditional constitution, holds its basic laws as preeminent, as they are meant to guide the judiciary and require a supramajority in parliament in order to be overturned.
The law's backers say it strengthens the state's status as a homeland for the Jewish people and note it was backed by a slim majority of the country's lawmakers. Polls published earlier this week found that just over half of voters support the legislation.
Israel’s Druze, however, feel the law has legally marginalized their civic identity. While Saturday's protests highlighted the impact of the law on Israel's Druze community, the demonstrations were meant to represent the struggles of all Israelis outraged by the new law.
Arab citizens, who make up some 17.5 percent of Israel's more than eight million population, have strongly criticized the law, particularly those from Israel's 150,000-strong Druze community, who, unlike other Arabs who may volunteer, are subject to compulsory service in the military or police alongside Jewish Israelis.
Other participants in the demonstrations included newly-appointed Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai.
Huldai told the rally that "what was so simple about the Declaration of Independence was intentionally left out of the Nationality Law, which ... excludes women, LGBTs, Reform Jews, the Conservative Jews, Circassians, Bedouins, Arabs, and yes, you too, our blood brothers the Druze," according to Ynet.
“The nation-state law in its current version does not recognize all of Israel’s citizens as equals. In the name of love for the nation, I stand before you today and call on us to abolish or amend the basic law that leaves the ‘other’ on the outskirts, and remove this ugly stain from the face of our state of Israel,” Huldai said.
Other lawmakers who have expressed concern over the legislation include head of the left-wing Meretz party Tamar Zandberg, who petitioned Israel’s high court Tuesday on behalf of her party against the law.
“The prime minister has decided to rank the citizens of Israel: Jewish are first-class, Druze are second-class, Arabs and LGBT are fourth-class,” Zandberg stated incisively, alluding to the passage of another law recently passed that precludes the gay community from surrogacy parenthood.
But Israel's Attorney-General Avichai Mandelbit has defended the law as having "no practical significance" and its vague wording means it as little to no effect.
In an interview with Hadashot television ahead of Saturday's protests, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan charged that the law was being used as a catalyst to stir divisions in Israeli society by people seeking to destabilize the government -- widely considered Israel's most right-wing in years.
“This rally has nothing to do with the nation-state law,” Erdan said, arguing that the law merely “completes” existing laws to emphasize that Israel is the national home of the Jewish people.
“There is not a word in this law that hurts the Druze community or any other community,” Erdan said.
The law, which has near-constitutional power as part of the series of Basic Laws that inform and direct Israel’s legislative and judicial branches, defines Israel as the national homeland for the Jewish people and states that "the realization of the right to national self-determination in Israel is unique to Jewish people."
Two clauses of the law have drawn particular concern: one which demotes Arabic from an official language of the state to one with "special status"; and another which encourages the promotion of “Jewish settlements”.
In order to quell backlash against the law, Netanyahu's office has proposed three additional laws that would establish the special status of the Arab minority communities in Israel, in particular the Druze and Circassian populations.
A key component of the proposal would ground as one of Israel's basic laws, the social equality of all those who contribute to Israel's armed forces.
But apparently Druze local council heads who lack security backgrounds oppose the proposal, one of the Druze negotiating team members reportedly told Haaretz, adding that nothing short of repealing the nation state law or adding the tenet of equality to it would appease them.
Dr. Amir Hanifas, a Druze professor and community activist, who made headlines after causing a scene at a ceremony where he confronted the parliamentarian who sponsored the nation state bill, told i24NEWS that the problem is not about the Druze community or about defining Israel as a Jewish state.
Dr. Hanifas went on stage at a scholarship award ceremony Thursday and called Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Avi Dichter -- one of the architects of the nation-state law -- a Nazi, saying that the legislation “will ensure our status as second class citizens” and that “nobody will stop us from challenging this racist law.”
“We have a problem with this law because it doesn’t say that Israel is a democratic state, Israel doesn’t provide equality to all its citizens,” he told i24NEWS.
Addressing the proposed compromise offered this week by Netanyahu in a meeting with various Druze leaders, Dr. Hanifas said it’s a shame it wasn’t provided before.
“It’s a wonderful proposal. But it’s a proposal that we should have received a long time ago, because we are full citizens of this state.”
Dr. Hanifas said he had voiced to Dichter his strong opposition to the nation-state bill in an hour-long meeting a year ago and yet Dichter claims he was unaware of the Druze stance on the law.
The Druze activist said the law would only harm “the heart of Israeli society, “those people who perceive themselves as part of the Israeli society….”
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