Jerusalem — When Lisa, a left-leaning Jewish Israeli, attended last Saturday night’s demonstration in Tel Aviv against the nation-state law organized by Israel’s Arab community, she was perturbed to see at least two dozen young Arab protesters waving Palestinian flags.
“I was concerned because I thought it would become a point of contention and that right-wing Jews would use the flags to justify the nation-state law,” said Lisa, a coexistence activist who requested that her last name not be published because the nonprofit organization she works for strives to be apolitical. “I knew the organizers of the protest had asked people not to bring flags, but some did.”
Lisa believes the Arab protesters had the right to bring Palestinian flags, even if they spurred a backlash. The flag is “a symbol of pride” for Israelis of Palestinian descent, she said, just as the Israeli flag is a source of pride for most diaspora Jews.
The demonstration, where some chanted for the “liberation of Palestine” and held up signs calling Israel an “apartheid state,” was cited by the Israeli right as proof that Arab citizens of Israel — who comprise 21 percent of the population — are a fifth column who want Israel to be destroyed and turned into a Palestine state.
Defenders of the demonstration noted that it was peaceful and underscored Israeli society’s commitment to democracy and freedom of speech.
The morning after the rally, which attracted tens of thousands of Arab and Jewish protesters, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet: “Yesterday we received unequivocal evidence of defiance to the existence of the State of Israel and the necessity of the nation-state law. We heard slogans in Arabic including ‘By blood and fire we will clear Palestine.’ Many of the demonstrators want to repeal the law of return [for Jews]; they want to abolish the anthem and the flag, and turn Israel into a Palestinian state,” Netanyahu said.
The Aug. 11 demonstration and the Jewish response to it was in sharp contrast to a rally organized by Israel’s Druze community in Rabin Square a week earlier. That event attracted an estimated 100,000 Jewish and Druze protesters and jumpstarted a process of self-reflection in the Israeli public.
During the demonstration, Druze participants questioned why the new law does not guarantee the rights of Druze citizens even though Druze men are drafted into the IDF. Other Arab citizens of Israel are exempt from IDF service, though some Bedouin and other Arabs volunteer to serve in the military or perform national service.
Israel’s Arab and other minority communities have traditionally received much smaller budgets and fewer building permits from the government than their Jewish Israeli counterparts.
Israeli Jews consider the Druze “blood brothers,” but not their compatriots of Palestinian descent, Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev noted this week. “Despite being caught for decades between an Israeli rock and a Palestinian hard place, notwithstanding the remarkable restraint they’ve shown relative to their predicament, for many, if not most, Israeli Jews, the Arab minority remains a fifth column in waiting,” Shalev wrote.
At least some of this sentiment can be traced to the fact that Druze community leaders openly voice their loyalty to whatever country they live in, and this includes Israel.
In contrast, several of Israel’s Arab MKs have openly voiced their support for their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza. Nor do they mince words about Israel. “Our ideological opposition to Israel as a Jewish state is well known – but that’s not what the demonstration was really about,” Arab Knesset member Ahmed Tibi said after the rally.
Tibi said the nation-state law, which Netanyahu pushed for, has attracted international attention on Israel’s civil rights’ record.
“Maybe we should thank Netanyahu,” Tibi quipped.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an Arab Israeli journalist who covers Arab affairs for The Jerusalem Post, said it is noteworthy that the Arab leadership decided to criticize the law during a government-permitted demonstration against the government.
“The good news is that Israeli Arabs chose to protest peacefully, together with their political allies in the Jewish community,” Abu Toameh noted. “I’d rather see Arabs protesting on Rabin Square than throwing stones on the Wadi Ara Road,” the site of previous violent protests.
Abu Toameh, a strong advocate of free speech and critic of the Palestinian Authority, said the bad news is that “there is a minority of radicals and extremists, and so-called nationalists, in the Arab community who are driving Israeli Arab citizens toward disaster. They raised Palestinian flags and provoked the Jewish community. What does a Palestinian flag have to do with this law? If they had brought an Israeli flag, Jewish Israelis would see that what we’re asking for is equality.”
Instead, the Arab leadership “confirmed Netanyahu’s allegations. They literally shot themselves in the foot,” Abu Toameh said.
Professor Eugene Kontorovich, head of international law at the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem, said it was “ironic” and “hypocritical” that some of the rally’s protesters were waving Palestinian flags representing “an apartheid state” in the making.
According to the 2003 Amended Palestinian Basic Law, Kontorovich said, Arabic will be the future state of Palestine’s official language, Islam its official religion, and the principals of Islamic Sharia law will be a “principal source” of legislation.
The Palestinian Basic Law also states that the Palestinian people have the right to self-determination in the Palestinian national homeland.
Despite the presence of Palestinian flags and some anti-Israel rhetoric, Hillel Frisch, a professor of political science and middle history at Bar Ilan University, believes Saturday night’s rally demonstrated a shift in how Arab citizens view Israel. “They showed a great deal of moderation. It wasn’t violent. It tried to attract Jews. They tried to make their message known — in Hebrew. It was far, far different from 18 years ago, during the beginning of the second intifada, when thousands chanted, ‘Oh Jews, remember the army of Mohammed will return to the battlefield.’”
Frisch attributed the change largely to Israel’s growing prosperity over the past 18 years, which has benefited Arab as well as Jewish citizens.
He said Arab citizens “feel they have a lot to lose. They have much more money relative to Arabs in Jordan and Egypt for example. They know they are freer. Some don’t like the Jewish state and in principle might like to leave, but, despite wide socioeconomic gaps, they also have an awareness of how well off they are” relative to others in the region.
Abu Toameh, the journalist, said people in his community don’t identify with Israel’s national Jewish symbols or sing “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, which refers to Israel as a “Jewish state.”
“But we’re talking about loyal, law-abiding citizens. They’re fighting for jobs, for better infrastructure, for equal public funding. They don’t challenge Israel’s right to exist. Only a few challenge Israel’s right to exist as the homeland of the Jewish people.
“Yes, they identify with their Palestinian families in the West Bank, but that doesn’t make them, us, a fifth column or an enemy from within,” Abu Toameh said.