A bunch of protesters held up signs in the visitors’ gallery of Israel’s parliament on Wednesday, and Speaker Yuri Edelstein of the ruling Likud Party ordered the ushers to eject them. He said their behavior was “shameful and disgusting.”
The signs were large copies of Israel's Declaration of Independence. You’d think that would be an uncontroversial patriotic gesture.
Not in Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel.
The debate was a special session, called during the summer recess by the opposition to discuss the recently passed Nation-State Law. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni was at the podium, saying, “The government is tearing up the Declaration of Independence and with it, the entire nation.”
The declaration has ceased being something high school students learn for tests and then semi-forget. Since the Nation-State Law passed last month, the founding document has become a rallying cry. More precisely, the part defining the state’s character has—the part that says Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
Big placards of the declaration were also prominent at a rally last Saturday night, at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, that drew close to 100,000 people. (Since the population of Israel is about one-fortieth that of the United States, figure that this is equivalent to close to four million people marching in America.) It was the largest demonstration since the string of economic protests in 2011.
It’s hard to get people to come out to demonstrate two weeks in a row, but it’s likely that a great many of those protesters were also at a rally nearly as big at the same spot the previous Saturday night. That one was in support of the LGBTQ community, after Netanyahu’s coalition scuttled a bill giving gay couples the right to surrogacy. Netanyahu had promised to support the bill, and then voted “no” in a deal to ensure passage of the Nation-State Law. That’s his baby.
In the process of getting it, Netanyahu might just have roused what could be called Middle Israel from somnolent unhappiness to active resistance.
For those just tuning in now: The quasi-constitutional Nation-State Law declares that Israel is the nation-state of the Jews, and that the Jewish people alone have the right to self-determination in Israel. Among other things, it demotes Arabic from the status of an official language alongside Hebrew, and includes a measure aimed at allowing housing discrimination against Arabs.
Looking back at the right’s multi-year battle to pass the law, its underlying practical purpose is to give the government a Supreme Court argument for protecting privileges of the Jewish majority against claims for, well, “complete equality” for everyone in the country.
After the law passed, Netanyahu gave a speech making it sound as if the Jewish state had only been established now, by him, rather than 70 years ago. In a sense, he was right: His aim was to create a different state, one without that troublesome, as-yes-unfulfilled promise of equality. Right-wing members of parliament took an easily caricatured selfie and went home, assuming the battle was over.
Instead, the storm was just starting. For the country’s Arab minority, the law is a wall across the road to individual and collective rights. For part of the Israel’s Jewish majority, they feel—correctly—that they woke up in a different country.
But the slap in the face that woke up middle-of-the-roaders was that—oops!—the law also shafts the Druse.
The Druse are a small religious minority in the Middle East, and a smaller minority in Israel, where about 120,000 live. If you are in the military, you’re likely to think their numbers are larger, because in contrast to most Arab citizens, Druse men are subject to the draft, by communal choice. A large number have chosen careers in the army and the police; a disproportionate number have fallen in Israel’s wars.
The number of Druse in Israeli universities is rapidly growing. One fun fact: They’re overrepresented in Hebrew literature departments. There’s also a trend of them giving their kids Hebrew names. The Druse have been Israel’s model minority, the advertisements for integration.
Here’s a very small selection of Druse responses to the right’s legislative project:
- “The nation-state law is a kill confirmation to my Israeli dream,” Druse television reporter Riyad Ali said on the air, as he teared up. “The moment the law passed every Druse soldier ... became a mercenary in the nation-state of the Jewish people.”
- In the Druse town of Beit Jann, in the military section of the cemetery, a sign was put up: “We sent you [to serve] and turned you into second-class fallen soldiers.”
- Amal Assad, a Druse retired brigadier general, published an op-ed saying, “I am against the nation-state law not only because it is against the Druse community. ... This law is against the country that we all aspired to achieve.” In 1999, let’s note, Assad was the deputy director of the Likud’s election campaign, when Netanyahu unsuccessfully ran for re-election.
Netanyahu met with Druse leaders and offered a “compromise” that included another law, establishing the status of the Druse community. In other words, there’d be three legal classes of citizens: Jews, Druse, and other Arabs.
In a Facebook post rejecting Netanyahu’s proposal, Assad wrote that the law “is intended as the groundwork to turn the country into an apartheid state.” Netanyahu used Assad’s mention of the forbidden A-word as the pretext to break up the next meeting with Druse leaders.
The rally last Saturday night was a Druse initiative. In principle, the law itself should have been enough to turn out a crowd that size and larger. But sometimes people who are trying to live a less political life need a bridge to empathy, a face with whom they identify, to realize what’s at stake. The Druse provided that bridge.
For much of Middle Israel, the occupation has vanished from sight. The West Bank is not across a sea, as Algeria was from France, or across the world, as India was from Britain. But if you act like it is, you can get on with life more easily.
The Nation-State Law shows there’s no point in putting the occupation out of mind. Netanyahu’s project isn’t just holding onto occupied territory. It’s creating a different country within the borders of Israel. That’s what's at stake.