Opposition Knesset members on Sunday debated the left’s muted response to the the Arab-led rally against the nation-state law after it drew criticism for the presence of Palestinian flags at the event.
Left-wing parties have staunchly opposed the contentious law passed by the Knesset last month, but most lawmakers chose not to attend Saturday’s protest rally to avoid being associated with displays of Palestinian nationalist symbols.
“Yesterday was a true test of democracy and equality,” Meretz MK Michal Rozin said in an interview with Channel 10 news.
Rozin, who attended the protest with a number of Meretz supporters, accused Labor leader Avi Gabbay, opposition leader Tzipi Livni and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid of joining “Netanyahu’s system of hierarchical citizenship.”
“It’s not a big deal to demand equal rights for people you totally agree with,” she said. “What is a big deal is standing for equality and against the nation-state law that discriminates against the Arab minority.”
Zionist Union MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin defended the absence of most opposition lawmakers, saying the call for Palestinian national rights of the rally was inconsistent with their political beliefs.
“Regarding the Palestinian flags, they can protest however they like, but I cannot attend a protest if I don’t agree with the message,” she said in the joint interview with Rozin. “What concerned [the protesters] were things that were totally irrelevant to the law, like the right of return and [Palestinian] national rights.”
But Rozin insisted the approximately 30,000 Israelis who packed into downtown Tel Aviv on Saturday night were simply demanding equality, similar to the Druze-led protest against the law held at the city square a week earlier.
She said the division over the rally among opposition lawmakers was splintering efforts to amend or strike down the law.
“This division serves Netanyahu. When the entire Zionist Union faction, which claims to be the opposition, doesn’t go to a rally for Arab equality, it is undermining equality in Israel,” Rozin said.
At Saturday’s rally, dozens of activists waved Palestinian flags in defiance of a request by organizers at the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, who wanted to encourage the Jewish population to attend the march in solidarity.
Protesters carried signs in Hebrew and Arabic demanding “Justice and equality now” and others calling the law “apartheid.” At times, some participants chanted in support of Palestine and against Israel, including cries of “With blood and fire, we will redeem Palestine” and “Million of martyrs are marching to Jerusalem.”
In Israel, Palestinian flags are often viewed with deep distrust because they are associated with the Palestinian national movement and its aim to subsume the Jewish state.
The flags were only a small part of the Saturday night rally, but they were instantly seized upon by right-wing politicians and others.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed the protesters who were waving Palestinian flags were seeking to destroy Israel and proved the contentious legislation was necessary.
“We have [here] conclusive evidence of the defiance against Israel and the necessity of the nation-state law,” he said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.
“Many of the protesters want to abolish the Law of Return, the anthem and the flag, and turn Israel into a Palestinian state,” he said. “It’s clearer now more than ever that the nation-state law is needed to ensure the future of Israel as a Jewish state.”
The presence of Palestinian flags at the rally also drew criticism from Jewish Home MK Uri Ariel, Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, and Likud ministers Ofir Akunis and Miri Regev.
The leader of the Joint (Arab) List, Ayman Odeh, responded to the criticism on Sunday, telling Army Radio that only several dozen protesters waved Palestinian flags and the overall spirit of the rally was not nationalistic in nature.
“Thirty thousand people gathered in Rabin Square to express their legitimate and just demand for equal civil rights for all,” he told Army Radio, and urged Israeli Jews to accept the Palestinian identity of Arab citizens.
“We are Arabs, and that needs to be internalized,” he said. “We have a culture, a language and a history,” Odeh said. “I am a member of the Palestinian Arab people, and a citizen of Israel at the same time…. accept me as I am.”
The law passed by the Knesset last month for the first time enshrines Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people,” and says “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” It also defines Arabic as a language bearing a “special” status, effectively downgrading it from its de facto status as Israel’s second official language.
The government has argued the new law merely anchors the country’s existing character, and that Israel’s democratic nature and provisions for equality are already rooted in existing constitutional legislation.
But critics, both at home and abroad, say it undermines Israel’s commitment to equality for all its citizens outlined in the Declaration of Independence.
It has prompted particular outrage from Israel’s Druze minority, whose members say the law’s provisions render them second-class citizens. Last week, at least 50,000 Israelis attended the Druze-led demonstration against the law in Rabin Square.