Arab Israelis largely stay away from pro-democracy protests against legal overhaul

Community, angry that most Jewish Israelis didn’t defend its rights during decades of discrimination, feels it doesn’t have a place in rallies featuring generals as speakers

A woman waves the Palestinian flag at a demonstration by left-wing Israelis in solidarity with Palestinians as part of ongoing protests against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Jaffa, March 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
A woman waves the Palestinian flag at a demonstration by left-wing Israelis in solidarity with Palestinians as part of ongoing protests against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Jaffa, March 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Amal Oraby is usually a fixture at street protests. But as hundreds of thousands of Israelis have demonstrated for months against the contentious government plan to overhaul the judiciary, Oraby is sitting this one out.

An activist and lawyer, Oraby is one of the many Arab Israelis — many of whom refer to themselves as Palestinian citizens of Israel — who have stayed on the sidelines of some of the country’s largest and most sustained demonstrations — a glaring absence in a movement that says it aims to preserve the country’s democratic ideals.

“I don’t see myself there,” Oraby said.

As a minority long plagued by discrimination, Arab Israelis have potentially the most to lose if the government’s plan, which would likely weaken the judiciary’s independence, is implemented.

But the community harbors a deep sense that the system is already rigged against it and always has been — and sees the demonstrations as an exclusively Jewish movement largely unwilling to include issues that matter to Arabs and blind to the longstanding perceived injustices against them.

The patriotic hallmarks of the movement have only reinforced for many Arab Israelis that there is no place for them: the ubiquitous Star of David flag, the national anthem about the yearning of the Jewish soul for Israel, and the heavy participation of former officials from the military, an institution Arab citizens view with suspicion, if not hostility.

Lawyer Amal Oraby poses for a portrait in Wadi Salib in Haifa, March 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

“In this demonstration, we don’t talk about occupation. We don’t talk about racism. We don’t talk about discrimination,” said Sami Abou Shehadeh, a former legislator in the Knesset for the anti-Zionist Balad party. “And they call it a struggle for democracy.”

Organizers say they have repeatedly invited Arab Israelis to participate but are keeping their message focused tightly on the overhaul.

The massive, months-long demonstrations and a general strike forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week to postpone the overhaul. But he did not scrap it, and the protests are expected to continue.

The plan as it currently stands would give the government control over who becomes a judge and severely limit judicial review on its decisions and legislation. Netanyahu’s government says the proposal would ease the lawmaking process and rein in a judiciary that it sees as having liberal sympathies and excessive powers.

Critics say it would damage the country’s system of checks and balances — and it galvanized opposition from a broad range of Israeli society, including leading economists, top legal officials and even the military.

Israelis block the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv during a protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul on March 26, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

While the protesters say their aim is to safeguard the Supreme Court, widely seen as a bulwark against tyranny, many Arab Israelis see the court as having failed them repeatedly. They have long viewed Israel’s democracy as tainted by both the country’s treatment of them and its 55-year, open-ended military rule over lands the Palestinians seek for an independent state.

Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up one-fifth of its 9.6 million people, have the right to vote and have representatives in the parliament, with one Arab party even recently joining a governing coalition for the first time — but they have long suffered discrimination in a range of spheres, from housing to jobs.

Descendants of Palestinians who remained within the borders of what became Israel, they are seen by many Jewish Israelis as a fifth column because of their ties and solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

While Arab Israelis have in many cases risen to the highest echelons of government, academia and business, the population as a whole is poorer and less educated than Jewish Israelis.

In their criticism of the Supreme Court, many Arab Israelis point to a 2021 decision to uphold a contentious law that defines the country as the nation-state of the Jewish people, a law they claim discriminates against minorities. They say the court generally permits Israel to build in West Bank settlements and regularly allows Israel to demolish the homes of Palestinians convicted of attacks against Israelis.

Still, as a minority, they could have even more to lose were Israel to become more illiberal, said Muhammed Khalaily, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.

Existing protections could be threatened, some fear. Bezalel Smotrich, a senior member of Netanyahu’s government, for instance, once called for segregated maternity wards, a comment that drew backlash.

That grim potential future hasn’t been enough to draw them into the protests.

A woman waves an Israeli flag at a demonstration in solidarity with Palestinians as part of ongoing protests against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Jaffa, March 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Feeling that their own rights were attacked over the years, some in the community feel a sense of betrayal that Jewish Israelis never rallied in their defense with the same fervor they have exhibited over the last three months.

“Where were you? Where were you during our struggle?” asked Oraby, the activist.

Protest organizer Shir Nosatzki said she recognized the complexities keeping Arab Israelis away, but added the movement has reached out to the community repeatedly and has had a growing number of Arabs speak at the protests.

“There is no other group in Israeli society that’s been the target of so much effort to rope it into the protest,” said Nosatzki, who also heads a group fostering Jewish-Arab political partnerships.

But the reality is less welcoming for some. Former military officials have been constant presences, boasting of their battle achievements against Palestinians and others, claims that are painful for many Arab Israelis to hear.

A small contingent of left-wing Israelis who oppose the military rule has been ostracized by other protesters for waving the Palestinian flag and trying to raise the Palestinian issue in the protests, for fear that it might push more mainstream Israelis away or be used by opponents to smear the protests as a cover for radical leftists.

The issue did elbow its way in after a rampage by West Bank Jewish settlers through a Palestinian town, Huwara — after two Israeli brothers were killed by a Palestinian terrorist there — and what critics said was a muted response to it by Israeli security services. Protesters shouted at police: “Where were you in Huwara?” That became a recurring chant against the heightened police presence throughout the protests.

Activist Reem Hazzan poses for a portrait in Haifa, March 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Some Arabs support attending the protests, if only as a platform to share their perspective. Others have tried to piggyback on the demonstrations, creating their own movement demanding Israel treat all citizens equally.

Reem Hazzan, a political activist, said she accepted an invitation to speak at a protest last month in the northern city of Haifa but backed out at the last minute after she said organizers asked for changes to her speech, saying it was not the right tone for the demonstration. Nosatzki said all speakers submit their speeches in for review, which tends to cause tensions.

“It is a struggle that is lacking when it doesn’t discuss the root of the problems,” Hazzan said. “The real invitation for Arab citizens will be genuine when these protests will come and say, ‘Friends, we want to build a future together, without occupation, with peace and with equality.'”

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