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The law that devastated Israel’s minorities

  • Paula
Attending Limmud last weekend, I was asked repeatedly what I think of the recently passed Nation-State law. Nearly everyone who approached me confessed to not really understanding it, and I was quick to proffer that neither did most Israelis.
by PAULA SLIER | Aug 10, 2018

When it was announced on 19 July, I interviewed a cross spectrum of people on the streets of Jerusalem, and inevitably, those with yarmulkes said it was positive, Arabs said it was racist, and nearly everyone admitted that they hadn’t read it.

It reflects the opinion polls. The majority of right-wing wing Israelis support the controversial law while unsurprisingly, there is wall-to-wall anger and criticism from Israel’s Arab minority. Centrists seem to be split down the middle.

The two most popular questions I’m asked is, first, why it was passed? Does it not state the obvious? After all, it talks about Israel being “the national home of the Jewish people”, and has no practical implications.

Second, why pass it now? This is easier to answer. In spite of always being a proponent of the law, for more than seven years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu allowed it to languish without the urgency of the past few weeks. The Knesset has now closed for vacation, and had the law not been passed last month, it’s unsure when it would have happened.

Netanyahu has hinted that he plans to call for early elections for the first half of next year, and so when the Knesset resumes in October, its members are likely to be more focused on political survival than dealing with new legislation.

Netanyahu has also faced criticism over his lack of action in dealing with the barrage of arson kites and balloons that were flown from Gaza into southern Israel in recent weeks.

The new law serves as a distraction, which no doubt Netanyahu hopes will resonate among his right-wing voters, and help them to forget his lukewarm response on the Gaza front.

Those who support the law argue that Israel has the right to be a nation state of a particular group of people rather than the state of all its citizens. Israel is not the only country that sees itself that way, and advocates stress that the new law changes nothing about the way Israel is governed, and does not take away the rights or equality of any of its citizens.

It also sends an important message to the Palestinians that they have to acknowledge the country’s right to exist as a Jewish state as a condition of any future peace negotiations.

However, the law doesn’t mention that Israel is also a democratic country that guarantees equal rights for all its citizens, and so critics charge it makes democracy less important than the re-affirmation of the country’s Jewish identity.

What seems surprising is that Netanyahu did not seem to predict the anger and sense of betrayal that, particularly the Druze community, would feel in its wake. Last Saturday night, an estimated 50 000 Israeli Jews and Druze demonstrated in Tel Aviv, complaining that the law undermined Israel’s democracy, and turned minorities into second-class citizens.

An Arabic-speaking people who follow an offshoot of Islam, the Druze hold a distinct place in Israeli society. They are the only major non-Jewish community whose majority of members are drafted into the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). About a thousand are recruited each year, and many go on to fill senior positions.

It was Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, who said, “I consider as Jewish anyone who is meshuge [crazy] enough to call themselves Jewish.”

For a long time, the Druze might have fitted this definition. They were the country’s model minority community, and while not calling themselves Jewish, they were loyal to Israel.

The first time I reported on Israel’s Druze community, I was encouraged to stand on the edge of a hilltop staring across the border into Syria. For decades following Israel’s capture of the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six-Day War, Druze families – divided by the war – found themselves living on opposite sides of the border. They would gather once a week at this point to shout at each other through megaphones. It was before cellular phones and Skype, and far from ideal. This earned the area the name “The Valley of Tears” as people desperately tried to reconnect with each other.

I remember interviewing a young Druze lawyer, Yamin Zidane, who defended Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Already six years ago he was spearheading a movement to encourage the Druze not to serve in the IDF. His two brothers and uncle had died while enlisted and fighting. He swore he’d make sure no one from his family ever again put on an IDF uniform.

“I used to see them as martyrs,” he told me. “But now I see them as victims. My brothers were victims of the Zionist movement, and they died fighting their own people. We were used as tools.”

Six years ago, Zidane was a minority within a minority. Now, in light of the Nation-State law – and regardless of the fact that it doesn’t really change anything on the ground – the damage is done. Symbolically, it has devastated the country’s minorities.

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