Tel Aviv — The protest over Israel’s controversial new nation-state law reached the ranks of the IDF’s combat corps, threatening to harm morale among some of the army’s best soldiers.
“I have given the country my soul. I have risked my life,” wrote Lt. Shady Zidan, a five-year Druze Arab infantry soldier in a resignation note posted on Facebook. “In the end, I’m second class? No thank you. I don’t intend to be a part of it.”
Zidan’s resignation was part of ongoing aftershocks among Israel’s Arab citizens over this month’s Knesset passage of constitutional legislation defining Israel as a Jewish nation-state that many argue omits principles of equal rights and democracy for the country’s one-fifth minority.
From a mass Arabic-language lesson in Tel Aviv, to resignations from the army and the Knesset, to plans for a first-ever Druze demonstration in Rabin Square, the fallout from the law has shaken Jewish-Arab relations in ways that have put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies on the defensive this week.
Though the prime minister hosted several meetings with Druze leaders to repair the damage from the bill, he told cabinet ministers they shouldn’t apologize for the law. “The Jewish nation-state is the cornerstone of our existence,” Netanyahu told ministers this week.
Dubbed “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People,” the Knesset approval for the legislation was akin to amending Israel’s quasi-constitution. Defenders say the law was necessary to formally enshrine Israel as a Jewish state, and actually has little official impact. It only states the obvious, such as establishing the Star of David banner with blue and white as Israel’s official flag and reaffirming Israel’s Law of Return allowing Jews outside of Israel automatic citizenship.
But there are some new wrinkles that many say formalizes a hierarchy between Jews and Arabs. The law declares that the “right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” In addition, Hebrew is recognized as the language of the state, while Arabic, which had been an official language alongside Hebrew since the years preceding Israel’s establishment, is designated as a language with “a special status.” Another clause embraces “Jewish settlement” as a “national value.”
The law’s omissions are significant as well, say critics. The bill makes no mention of the rights of the country’s Arab minority, doesn’t discuss the principle of equality or refer to Israel’s democratic system of government. In addition to protests by Arabs, Israeli intellectuals and former police commissioners, the bill has also spurred pointed criticism by American Jewish groups. Critics also say the bill contradicts Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which promises “complete equality of political and social rights of all inhabitants” regardless of race or religion.
“The nation-state bill is a point-blank assassination of the choose one Israeli dream of mine. To my understanding, once that bill passed, every Druze soldier was transformed into a mercenary of the Jewish state,” said Riad Ali, a veteran Druze Arab field reporter for the Israeli Public Broadcast Corporation, in a televised roundtable.
“I am not obligated to be Israel, I don’t have to feel Israeli, and the State of Israel can’t demand I feel Israeli. Because the word ‘Israeli’ is no longer in the lexicon of the discourse. There are only Jews and non-Jews.”
The alliance between Israeli Jews and Druze extends back to before Israel’s independence. The basis of the cooperation lies in both groups’ history of being persecuted — the Jews as minorities in Europe and the Druze as religious minority in Sunni-dominated Muslim societies. Druze Arabs threw in their lot with the Zionists assuming that the Jews’ history of suffering anti-Semitism would make them sensitive to minority rights in the Jewish state.
In the last 20 years — unlike Muslim and Christian Arabs — the Druze have increasingly enlisted in combat units, while Druze politicians have been elected to the Knesset with both right-wing and left-wing Zionist political parties.
“Mostly, they are insulted,” said Eran Zinger, an Arab-affairs editor at the Public Broadcast Corporation. “Not because what was written in the law, but because what wasn’t written in the law: the contribution of the Druze to the Israeli army and society and the relationship to the state.”
In a sign of the potency of the Druze protest, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot released a statement on Tuesday asking soldiers to protest as citizens, not soldiers, thereby leaving the army out of the debate over the law.
A poll this week by Israel’s Walla! News found that 58 percent of Israelis support the law versus 34 percent who oppose it. At the same time, there’s broad sympathy for the Druze: 54 percent said their public protests were just.
Defenders of the law say it’s a necessary bulwark to ensure that Israel remains Jewish, rather than merely “a state of all its citizens.” The law is also a reaction to supporters of a two-state solution who support a Palestinian state on the West Bank, but resist dubbing Israel as a Jewish state.
“The only people in the world who are denied the right of self-determination are the Jewish people, even if the Jewish people are willing to recognize the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination,” said Avraham Diskin, a Hebrew University political scientist who proposed previous versions of the law.
On Tuesday evening, conversational Arabic became a rally cry for opponents of the law, as thousands of Jewish Israelis gathered at the square outside of the Habima national theater to take part in a mass Arabic-language class.
Avi Nudelman, 42, a former officer in the Israeli army’s liaison office to the Palestinians, wore a T-shirt with Arabic and Hebrew letters declaring, “I speak Arabic.”
“Arabic was always an official language in Israel,” he said. “We grew up with Arabic language alongside Hebrew, and we don’t need to change it.”
Mai Arow, the director of Arabic instruction for the Abraham Fund Initiatives, said that the new law’s downgrade of Arabic is a blow to the standing of Arabic and Arabs. “This is supposed to be a democracy,” she said. “But it’s a long road. There was always hope that things would improve. But there’s been a retreat because of this law.”
The law has stirred up protest among some mainstream American Jewish organizations, like the Anti-Defamation League and the AJC. In addition to expressing alarm at the way the law alienates minorities and lacks mention of equality, the groups are worried that a clause about Israel’s relationship with the Jewish people could be interpreted to formalize the religious monopoly held by the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox inside Israel.
“In addition to domestic tensions, [the law] poses a reputational challenge for Israel” among liberal groups and minorities in the U.S., tweeted Dan Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel.
“Israel can make it harder or easier for people like me to [preserve support among liberal Jews]. Disrespect non-Orthodox Jewish practices & identity? Harder. Expand settlements in ways that would prevent 2-states? Harder. Expel African asylum-seekers? Harder.
“Alienate Israel’s minorities?” he ended the tweet. “Harder.”