Demonstrators filled Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on Saturday to protest the Jewish Nation-State Law and demand full equality. Will that be enough to pressure Netanyahu to backtrack?
By Meron Rapoport
Could it be that the “Israeli state” was born in Tel Aviv’s central square Saturday night? Perhaps it’s a bit early to say, but if there was one sentence that kept repeating itself at the Druze mass protest against the Jewish Nation-State Law, it was that “this law excludes us from Israeliness.” That’s what the anger was about, that was the affront.
The Knesset last month passed a Basic Law, the closest thing to a constitutional amendment in Israel, declaring that Israel is the Jewish nation-state, that Jews alone have a right to national self-determination in it, and stripping Arabic of its status as an official language. The Druze community in Israel, one of the few non-Jewish groups in the country that serves in the army, was outraged. Serving army officers resigned, former generals spoke out, tens of thousands took to the streets.
In Rabin Square Saturday night, Rafik Halabi, the protest’s MC and the head of a large Druze local municipality in northern Israel, came on stage every 30 minutes or so to announce how many people were present. One hundred thousands, 150,000, 250,000. Other, more modest reports, spoke of 90,000 protesters. Either way, Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square was packed full of people in a way that we haven’t seen very often in recent years.
It was particularly exceptional to see Tel Aviv’s central square full of Druze flags. There were also Israeli flags, but not as many. It was also incredible to hear Arabic being spoken so freely on stage, and even more so throughout the crowd. The succession of speakers was long: Druze spiritual leader Sheikh Muafak Tarif, Brig.-Gen. Amal Assad, former head of the Shin Bet Yuval Diskin, former state attorney Moshe Lador, a former member of Knesset, and others. But the crowd only wanted to hear one word: equality.
The “shared fate” and “blood alliance” between Druze and Jews was mentioned, but most of the Druze speakers didn’t talk too much about the military ties between the Druze and Jewish populations — that was mostly the Jews.
“The alliance with the Jews must be an alliance of equals,” Rafik Halabi told the tens of thousands gathered to protest the Jewish Nation-State law. “The Druze want to be part of the camp. We want our citizenship to mean something. We are real Israelis — the Nation-State Law empties Israeliness of any meaning. From today on there is no blood pact, there is no alliance of life, there is an alliance of equality.”
This was no left-wing protest. It was not a protest in which Palestinian citizens of Israel would have felt very comfortable. All of the speakers, and many of those in the crowd with whom I spoke, accepted without any stipulations that Israel is the “Jewish state.” The protest also ended with Druze leaders standing on the stage and singing “as long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart” — Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva.
However, it was also clear that Netanyahu’s attempts to divide the Druze from the rest of the Palestinian population in Israel have not succeeded, and not only because “Bibi go home” chants broke out every time the prime minister’s name was mentioned. It was that the main demand that was raised in Rabin Square Saturday night, both from the speakers and the protesters, was equality. No special status, no conditions — just equality.
“We have no problem with the [Jewish] Nation-State Law,” said Member of Knesset Akram Hasson, who is a part of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition. “But we want a basic law [ensuring] equality, a law that will withstand the test of the High Court, a law guaranteeing equality for all. We aren’t racists. We are fighting for Israeliness.”
The new law makes Israel exclusively the state of the Jewish people, and not all Israelis. Calling for “a state of all its citizens” has been seen by the ruling coalition as the ultimate taboo — a characterization that would threaten the state’s Jewish identity.
“This law pushed us over the fence,” said Druze leader Amal As’ad, who butted heads with Netanyahu last week, and was received with great admiration when got up to speak. “We want equality.” “For Arabs too?” I ask him. “Certainly,” he replies. “We are all citizens.”
“I was very insulted that this law omitted the word ‘equality’,” said Toufik Nasr Eldin, a protester from Daliyat al-Karmel. “We want equal rights for all citizens, regardless of their religion or ethnicity. We want the Declaration of Independence to be the law.”
The Declaration of Independence was the star of the show at the protest, both on stage and among the crowd. It was the glue that connected the Druze and the many Jewish protesters who showed up.
Will the Druze protest force Netanyahu to change the Jewish Nation-State Law? It’s too early to say. But it is difficult to imagine the Druze leadership compromising on an agreement that won’t include the word “equality,” especially after receiving so much support on Saturday. Bigger budgets simply won’t do. The statement “you can’t buy us with money” could be heard all around the square. And if the law does end up being changed, it will become clear that Netanyahu messed with the wrong community.
Meron Rapoport is an editor at Local Call, where a version of this article first appeared in Hebrew. Read it here.