DALIYAT AL-KARMEL, Israel — The Arabic speakers who organized Saturday’s mass demonstration against Israeli government policy ended the event with a rendition of “Hatikvah,” complete with the line about how a Jewish soul “still yearns” for Zion.
In Israel’s 70-year history, non-Jewish minorities have held many angry demonstrations against the country’s leadership. But this one was different. There was no hint of Arab nationalism.
The demonstration in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square was the sharp response of Israel’s most loyal minority group, the Druze, to the newly passed nation-state law. Or rather, to the government’s refusal to change the law based on this community’s objections.
The Druze nurture good relations with the Jewish population and serve in the army, and large numbers of Jewish Israelis (50,000, according to press reports) went to demonstrate with them. It wasn’t only the usual crowd from the activist left, but people from the Israeli mainstream, and some very establishment public figures, including Tel Aviv’s mayor, Ron Huldai, and former IDF Chief-of-Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.
“This was a slap in the face of the government,” Elie Rekhess, an expert on Israeli minorities and visiting scholar at Northwestern University, told me the next morning. He added: “I’m an historian, and from my perspective what we have seen may mark a turning point or a watershed.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s answer to Druze anger over the nation-state law is to take out his checkbook to placate this 120,000-strong community. On Monday his office announced that the first meeting of a new ministerial committee to address complaints had been held and that it was looking at “advancement” of issues, including “housing, employment, social welfare, and benefits for discharged soldiers.” But Netanyahu is understood to be unprepared to change the law.
Around the time that this meeting was taking place in Jerusalem, I was in Israel’s largest Druze town, Daliyat al-Karmel, near Haifa. Mayor Rafik Halabi, who emceed a town hall demonstration, was acerbic about what he considers Netanyahu’s attempt to buy off his community.
“I prefer to continue with this law rather than to get budgets and say it’s OK,” he insisted, saying that he refused Netanyahu’s latest invitation to meet because he felt the prime minister was playing his community. Yet, as Halabi spoke, a photo of Netanyahu was behind him, as a mark of respect to the country’s government.
The nation-state law defines what it means for Israel to be a Jewish state. Druze are upset that the law strips their language, Arabic, of its official status. But they are most angry that it doesn’t say that equality of non-Jews is integral to the concept of a Jewish state. Anger over this missing component came up repeatedly as I spoke to the residents of Daliyat al-Karmel.
“I’m not against the law, and I actually want a Jewish state,” said Nizar Meshila, 38, who runs a clothing shop. “If the word ‘equality’ was simply in the law, it would be fine, a million percent.” Amal Abu Salah, a 42-year-old photographer, agreed: “Just a section saying there’s equality is all we want; that’s it.”
In this town, people are keen to emphasize that their complaints come after decades of loyalty. Israeli flags flutter alongside Druze flags, and almost every man is happy to discuss his army service. Israel’s Druze make careers in the security services in disproportionate numbers, and Meshila said that virtually all of his male relatives have entered the field, including one who represents the IDF in China.
Daliyat al-Karmel residents also stress how their alliance began even before Druze helped Jews to fight Israel’s War of Independence. Some are convinced that “Hatikvah” was written in Daliyat al-Karmel, as its composer, Naftali Herz Imber, used to vacation there.
In the town hall, Halabi sat staring at a flyer for the Tel Aviv demonstration that his colleagues had made, trying to get his head around how big the event was. “For the first time in history Druze were there, united,” he said.
Halabi is resolute that the Druze battle against the law can take place without harming Druze-Jewish relations. “We know that this is a law of the Likud government and that all the Jewish people out there don’t think like Netanyahu and Bennett,” he said, referring to the prime minister and to Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
“We know this law is not the law of the Israeli people — it’s the government, and the government will change.”
But the mayor believes that the government has opened a Pandora’s Box by raising a question that it isn’t ready to answer — namely, if the basic law dealing with nationality is all about Jewishness, where does this leave the idea of “Israeliness”?
“Israeliness” kept coming up at the demonstration. Halabi said in his speech: “The alliance with Jews must be an alliance of equals. The Druze want to be part of the camp. We want our citizenship to mean something. We are real Israelis, [but] the nation-state law empties Israeliness of any meaning.”
As the mayor sees it, what makes the Druze interesting is that unlike most Israeli Arabs, they have thrown in their lot with Israeli Jews, putting the ball in Israel’s court regarding how it responds to their anger about the new law.
He is convinced that Israel must remain Jewish, but also that his demand to revise the law and bolster “Israeliness” is good for all Israelis, and not just the Druze. “We want to try to create a new identity that can include the Jews and the Druze and the Muslims, and the immigrant from Russia who may be half-Jewish,” he said.
Nathan Jeffay is a contributing editor for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.