Eisenkot hails role in Israel's defense played by minorities

IDF head to Druze soldiers fuming at nation-state law: Keep politics out of army

Shady Zidan, second officer to declare he’ll quit over legislation, says he was proud to salute the flag, now feels like a ‘second-class citizen’

Illustrative: A training exercise of the IDF's Sword Battalion, made up mostly of Druze soldiers, in 2011. (CC-BY SA IDF/Wikimedia Commons)
Illustrative: A training exercise of the IDF's Sword Battalion, made up mostly of Druze soldiers, in 2011. (CC-BY SA IDF/Wikimedia Commons)

IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot on Tuesday urged soldiers to leave politics “outside the confines of the army” and praised the contributions of Druze and other minorities to the defense of the state.

Eisenkot spoke out as a Druze army officer who serves as a deputy company commander in an IDF combat unit announced that he intends to leave the army in protest of a controversial law that enshrines Israel as the exclusive nation-state of the Jewish people.

In a highly unusual statement apparently prompted by that officer’s announcement, a similar one a day earlier, and widespread outrage among Israeli Druze over the new Jewish nation-state law, Eisenkot called on minorities in the IDF to “leave the controversial political issues outside the confines of the army.”

He hailed the contribution of minorities to Israel’s defense, and pledged: “As an inclusive people’s army whose goal is to defend Israeli citizens and win wars, we are committed to safeguarding human dignity, irrespective of race, religion and gender.”

Eisenkot stated that “the shared responsibility and the warrior’s camaraderie with our brothers the Druze, Bedouin, and other minorities serving in the IDF, will continue to guide us.”

In a post to his Facebook page Monday, Shady Zidan said he had decided to resign from the army after five years of service because the recently passed law, which has been called discriminatory toward the country’s minorities, makes him feel like a second-class citizen.

“Until today, I gave my soul to the country, I risked my life, I was away from home, and who knows what else,” he wrote.

“Until today, I stood in front of the national flag with pride and I saluted it. Until today, I sang the Hatikva national anthem because I was sure that this is my country and I am equal to all others,” Zidan wrote. “But today, today I refused for the first time in my service to salute the flag, I refused for the first time to sing the national anthem.”

Posted by Shady Zidan on Friday, April 22, 2016

“I am not a political person, and not someone who is bothered by [politics]… But I am a citizen, like all others, and give my all and more for the country. In the end I am a second-class citizen?” he added. “So thank you, I am not prepared to be part of this and, likewise, I am joining this campaign, and so I have decided to stop serving this country.”

“Thank you, Israel,” he finished.

Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot (R), giving Kamil Abu Rokon, the new Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, his new army rank at a swearing-in ceremony in the West Bank on May 1, 2018. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

On Sunday, a Druze army officer wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, published on his Facebook page, announcing his intention to leave the IDF and calling on fellow Druze to not join the army.

“This morning when I woke up to return to my base, I asked myself why? Why do I need to serve the state?” the officer, Capt. Amir Jamal, wrote.

“After a lot of thought, I have decided to leave the army and not continue my service,” he wrote, also calling for an end to the compulsory draft for the Druze.

The army later released a statement saying that the officer had been summoned for talks with his commanding officers.

“Soldiers and officers from minority communities were and always will be a central part of the IDF on the field of battle and during peacetime,” the statement said. However, it noted that “political statements are not permitted according to army regulations.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Sheikh Muwaffak Tarīf, spiritual leader of the Druze community in Israel, in Jerusalem on November 26, 2014. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Netanyahu announced Sunday that the government would establish a team to “quickly bring forward recommendations for actions that will strengthen our important ties. However, he reiterated that he opposes altering the controversial legislation.

Opposition to the law continued to mount, with coalition lawmakers calling for changes to address concerns in the Druze community, and others continuing to protest provisions in the law derided as discriminatory toward the country’s non-Jews.

On Tuesday the left-wing Meretz opposition party filed a High Court of Justice petition against the law, claiming it is illegal and contradicts the principles of equality that are at the foundation of Israel’s democratic system.

The nation-state bill — which 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” — has sparked widespread criticism from Israel’s minorities, the international community and Jewish groups abroad.

Last week, Druze leaders, including three Knesset members, petitioned the High Court of Justice against the legislation, saying it was an “extreme” act that discriminated against the country’s minorities.

The Druze, a breakaway sect from Islam, are the only minority that has taken upon itself Israel’s mandatory draft and serves in large numbers alongside Jewish soldiers in some of the IDF’s most elite units.

Members of Israel’s Druze community arrive to attend a celebration at the holy tomb of Nebi Shu’eib in northern Israel on April 25, 2018. (AFP Photo Jalaa/Marey)

The nation-state law, proponents say, puts Jewish values and democratic values on equal footing. Critics, however, say the law effectively discriminates against Israel’s Arabs and other minority communities.

The law became one of the basic laws, which, similar to a constitution, underpin Israel’s legal system and are more difficult to repeal than regular laws.

The law also declares that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, sets the Hebrew calendar as the official calendar of the state, and recognizes Independence Day, days of remembrance, and Jewish holidays. One clause of the bill downgrades the Arabic language from official to “special” standing, but also cryptically stipulates that “this clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.”

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