From the rooftop of Tel Aviv’s 12-story municipality building, the Druze community’s multi-colored flag and its elder members’ traditional headdresses were visible, and repeated chants of “equality” were audible.
Some tens of thousands of Israeli Druze and their supporters had nearly filled one of the city’s largest public spaces, Rabin Square, to protest the Knesset’s approval of the quasi-constitutional nation-state law.
“I feel like I have been abandoned by the government,” said Nimr, a middle-aged Druze soldier, who has served in the IDF for 26 years, alluding to the new law while sitting atop a speaker and clutching his community’s flag.
The nation-state law, which the Knesset passed with a 62-55 vote on July 19, enshrined Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people,” recognized Jewish holidays and days of remembrance and declared Hebrew the state’s national language.
The legislation included no reference to the equality of all Israeli citizens akin to the one made in Israel’s Declaration of Independence — which pledged that the nascent state would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” — and it appeared to grant the Arabic language a lesser status than that of Hebrew.
Nimr said the law was prompting his son, who recently completed high school, to have second thoughts about being drafted into the army.
“He is not sure if he still wants to join,” Nimr said. “He is wondering why he should protect a state that considers him a second-class citizen.”
The Israeli Druze, who follow a 1,000-year-old offshoot of Shiite Islam, only account for 1.61 percent of Israel’s almost 9 million population, approximately 143,146 people, and predominantly live in villages in northern Israel, but they have historically made major contributions to public service in the country, especially in the realm of security.
Samir al-Asa’d, a 51-year-old retired lieutenant colonel who served in the military for 22 years, said that the law has let him down.
“Israel is my country,” declared As’ad, one of many organizers of the Saturday night protest, which drew a crowd of at least 50,000 Israelis — Druze and others. “I am proud to be an Israeli, but this law made me feel humiliated.”
The protest on Saturday was not the first public action Israeli Druze have taken since the passage of the law. Earlier last week, Druze community leaders set up a protest tent in Rabin Square and two Druze IDF officers, including a deputy company commander of a combat unit, declared on Facebook that they intended to resign from the military.
While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has met with groups of Israeli Druze leaders to discuss their concerns about the nation-state law, he has also continued to defend the legislation.
At a cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu pushed back against criticism of the law, arguing that other quasi-constitutional laws protect all Israelis’ individual rights. He also contended that the law was necessary to ensure that “Israel remains not just democratic, but also the nation-state of the Jewish people, and of the Jewish people alone.”
But in an apparent attempt to mollify Druze critics, the Prime Minister’s Office last Monday put forward a proposal to anchor in separate legislation the status of the Druze and Circassians, another minority group that serves in high numbers in Israel’s security sector, and provide them and others who defend the state with financial benefits.
Though leaders in the Druze community have made some positive comments about the Prime Minister’s Office’s proposal, they still have not formally responded to it.
Akram Hasson, a Druze lawmaker from the Kulanu party in Netanyahu’s coalition who voted against the nation-state legislation and described it as “a stab in the back,” said he believes there are two possible ways to address the Druze community’s concerns.
“This problem can be solved,” said Hasson, a former mayor of Daliyat al-Karmel, the largest Druze village in Israel.
“One way is to add a reference to equality for all Israeli citizens in the current law, including their right to settle anywhere in Israel and define themselves as a part of the Israeli nation. Another way is to include such a reference to equality in a new law.”
Ties that date to the Mandate era
The relationship between Druze and Jews here dates back to before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
Residents of some Druze villages who had conflicts with their Muslim neighbors had established alliances with Jews in the days of the British Mandate of Palestine, according to Rami Zeedan, a professor at the University of Kansas, who has written extensively about the history of Druze in Israel.
“Both communities were minorities at that time,” Zeedan said. “So some Druze villages established individual alliances with the Jewish communities around them.”
In the years following the establishment of the state, the relationship became closer. In 1956, Israel’s mandatory military conscription law was applied to the Druze, significantly increasing their participation in the army.
Zeedan says the leadership of the Druze at the time was pressured to accept an Israeli government initiative to draft them.
“The government had taken persistent action to compel the Druze leadership to send its community members to the army,” he said. “Basically the government had made it clear that the path to integration of the Druze community within Israel would come through army service.”
Some other historians, however, argue that it was the Druze leadership that approached the government and asked it to sign its community up for compulsory military service.
“The Druze leadership knew that the only path to economic advancement and integration was through military service,” said Gabi Ben-Dor, a professor at the University of Haifa and author of a book on the history of Druze in Israel. “Therefore, they asked the Israeli government not to exempt their community from it.”
Despite their disagreement on the exact history of Druze in Israel, both Zeedan and Ben-Dor believe that Israel has been very successful in integrating the Druze into its security sector.
The Druze currently serve at higher rates than the Jews. According to Hasson, an average of 84% of eligible army-age Druze are annually drafted into the army, compared to 72% among Jews. They also hold many high-ranking positions in the military and work in senior roles in the Border Police, Prison Service and other state-run security bodies. For example, Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rokon is the current head of COGAT (the coordinator of government activities in the territories), the branch of the Defense Ministry that liaises with the Palestinians — one of the most senior and sensitive roles in the entire security establishment.
Nonetheless, while Israeli Druze have been heavily integrated into the security services, their communities have not reaped the same benefits as neighboring Jewish towns, Zeedan and Ben-Dor said.
Budgets for salaries and education in Druze municipalities are currently on par with Jewish communities, but budgets for infrastructure and development have for decades been some 25%-40% smaller than those of Jewish towns, according to Zeedan.
“When you walk through a Druze village, it’s obvious that the state has not made the same infrastructure investments in it as a neighboring Jewish town,” he said.
The Druze also suffer from a shortage of land to build on, and no new Druze village has been established since the founding of Israel, even though their population has grown tenfold, Ben-Dor added.
Druze newlyweds frequently struggle to find land to build a home in their communities, he said.
The first new Druze town in Israel’s history is slated to be established in the Lower Galilee in the coming years. (A spokesman for Netanyahu did not respond to a request for comment on the funding inequalities and other aspects of the relationship.)
The strong reaction by many Israeli Druze to the nation-state law not only reflects their frustration with it, Kulanu MK Hasson said, but also “with the years of discrimination” that their communities have endured.
“The state treats us as equals in terms of our army service, but deals with us as second-class citizens when it comes to other issues like budgets and land,” Hasson said. “I have no doubt that the reaction to the nation-state law also has to do with the years of discrimination we have faced.”