In response to the law, the Druze, a small but significant ethno-religious group that has consistently supported Israel, led other non-Jewish minority groups in protest.
Tens of thousands of members of Israel’s Druze community rallied in Tel Aviv on August 4 against the so-called “Nation-State Bill” that the Knesset approved last month. Some Israeli Jews also joined the protests against the controversial law, which has been strongly opposed by non-Jewish minorities in Israel, as well as human rights organizations and the European Union.
The new law, which the Knesset approved on July 19 by a majority vote of 65 to 55, explicitly defines Israel as “the historical homeland of the Jewish people.” The law also states that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” The clear implication of the law is that Israel is not a homeland for all its citizens, which includes the Druze minority population. The Druze are an ethno-religious group divided by national borders who became minorities in Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan after the fall of the Ottoman empire and the creation of Israel.
In protest of the new law, the Druze organized a massive rally to fill Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, one of the largest squares in Israel. Thousands of protesters carried both the flag of Israel and the multi-colored flag of the Druze community. Druze community leaders and Druze soldiers who currently serve, or have previously served, in the Israeli security forces participated in the demonstrations. Of the many speakers to take the stage, most were retired Druze or Jewish military officers. There were reportedly“enough retired generals [at the rally] to launch three military coups,” according to Haaretz.
Druze protesters said that they felt uniquely betrayed by the new law that denies them, even as loyal citizens of Israel, the right to equal citizenship. The Druze, unlike Muslim and Christian Palestinians, have predominantly supported Israel since its founding in 1948, and have fought for Israel in all of its wars. Consistent with their social norm that demands loyalty to whichever nation a Druze community calls home, Israeli Druze proudly consider themselves Israeli and retain a sizable Zionist political group. They maintain that the new law has undermined their trust in the Israeli government.
Druze soldiers were the most vocal sit-in participants. “I feel I have been abandoned by the government,” said Nimr, a Druze soldier who has served in the Israeli army for 26 years.
Nimr claimed that his son, who had recently graduated from high school, had considered joining the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The recent law caused him to reconsider. “He is wondering why he should protect a state that considers him a second-class citizen,” Nimr remarked.
Samir Alas’ad, a veteran lieutenant colonel who served in the IDF for 22 years, said “Israel is my country. This law made me feel humiliated.”
Druze soldiers serve at higher rates in the Israeli army than their Jewish counterparts. For example, 84 percent of eligible Israeli Druze are drafted annually, compared to 72 percent of eligible Israeli Jews. The new law is likely to have a dramatic impact on the participation rate of the Druze in the Israeli army. In fact, three Druze officers have already resigned from the army in protest against the Nation-State Bill.
Despite the Druze community’s dedication to the state of Israel and their members’ full integration into the IDF, they are still far from acquiring equal treatment or equal rights in Israel. Their rights to own property and their right to expand their communities are restricted. No new Druze villages have been established since 1948, though their population has since grown tenfold.
Many voices in Israel have warned of the long-term ramifications of the Nation-State Bill. Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said the new law has had a symbolic effect on minorities, especially on the Druze, warning it would cause “tangible damage to the relationship between Jews and Arabs, and between the majority Jewish population and the Druze minority.”
One of the controversies of the new law lies in the concept of the “Jewish people.” While it includes the Jewish citizens who are already living in Israel, the new law also guarantees automatic citizenship and residency to all Jewish people who decide to take up residence in Israel. This not only adds to the Druze feelings of humiliation, but it confirms the state-supported discrimination against religious minorities. Under the law, new Jewish citizens would be legally allowed to practice self-determination, a right which Palestinians have been denied. The new law explicitly asserts that the state of Israel “will be open for Jewish immigration and the ingathering of exiles.”
The new law also recognizes Hebrew as the only official language of Israel, stripping Arabic of its official status. Now, Arabic is a “special status language,” whose usage in state institutions will be regulated by law.
There are other implications that will affect Israel’s relationship with the Palestinian Authority, further complicating the peace process. During the history of negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, there have been two almost intractable questions that neither side nor any international mediator has been able to resolve: the refugee question and the status of Jerusalem. Israel has rejected any proposal to grant Palestinian refugees a right of return. It has also declared “greater and united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” according to the Nation-State Bill.
The legal status of the Nation-State Bill effectively makes it a constitutional amendment. Considered a “law of laws,” it can override any other ordinary law. It can also affect the interpretation of other laws “because it anchors the constitutional identity of the regime, which determines who is the sovereign granting legitimacy to all laws,” as stated by Adalah’s Position Paper. The law also applies to Jerusalem, Golan Heights, and the occupied territories — so labeled by international law — where a significant percentage of the population is Arab. Twenty percent of Israel’s total population is Arab.
The new law legalizes discrimination and inequality and expressly demotes the legal status of non-Jews to second-class citizens. PLO Secretary General Saeb Erekat remarked that the new law “turns a ‘de facto’ apartheid regime into a ‘de jure’ reality for all of historic Palestine.” Muslim and Christian Palestinians in Israel have lambasted the law for favoring the Jewish group over all others, as well as for being diametrically opposed to ending discrimination. Druze leaders, in solidarity with other non-Jewish minorities, rejected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s offer of special status for the Druze while otherwise keeping the law intact.
“By defining sovereignty and democratic self-rule as belonging solely to the Jewish people — wherever they live around the world — Israel has made discrimination a constitutional value,” said Hassan Jareed of the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. Israel has “professed its commitment to favoring Jewish supremacy as the bedrock of its institutions.”
A contingent of Arab-Israeli Members of the Knesset is planning to bring their grievances to Brussels and urge the E.U. to support a U.N. resolution that would liken the Nation-State Bill to apartheid.