Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday defended the recently passed Jewish nation-state law as “vital” for ensuring that “Israel will remain the Jewish nation-state for generations to come.”
Netanyahu’s comments at Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem came after weeks of protest from the Druze minority and others following the law’s passage last month. Members of Israel’s Druze community serve in the Israeli army and have expressed particular outrage at the law’s provisions, saying it renders them second-class citizens.
More than 50,000 Israelis, waving Israeli and Druze flags and calling for equality, gathered at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Saturday night to demonstrate against the controversial law. Leaders of the Druze community were among the key organizers of the demonstration.
But Netanyahu rejected the criticism. “Individual rights are anchored in many laws, including the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. No one has harmed or intends to harm these individual rights,” he told ministers at the start of the meeting.
“But without the nation-state law we cannot promise that Israel will remain the Jewish nation-state for generations to come,” he said.
The law gave constitutional backing to the Law of Return, which grants automatic immigration and naturalization rights to Jews around the world, as well as to laws preventing Palestinians from getting Israeli citizenship by marrying Israelis and laws seeking to prevent future asylum seekers from entering Israel.
“These things are all happening,” Netanyahu said, “because only individual rights were anchored in the state’s laws, without any constitutional balance of our national element. Therefore we legislated the nation-state law, to ensure that the State of Israel remains not just democratic, but also the nation-state of the Jewish people, and of the Jewish people alone. This is vital not only for our generation but for future generations as well.”
Netanyahu also vowed to address what he has described as the Druze community’s legitimate concerns.
“Our deep ties with the Druze community and our commitment to it are vital as well,” he said Sunday. “Therefore, we will establish today a special ministerial committee that will advance this relationship and this commitment, and at the same time will recognize those who serve in the IDF and the security services from all religions and all communities.”
The Druze community has railed against the bill as enshrining not Israel’s Jewish identity, but the inequality of even the most loyal of minorities.
“Despite our unlimited loyalty to the state, the state doesn’t consider us equals,” the community’s top spiritual leader in Israel, Sheikh Muafak Tarif, said in his speech at Saturday night’s rally.
Beyond angering the Druze, the law has sparked widespread criticism from Israel’s minorities and opposition, the international community, and Jewish groups abroad.
The legislation, 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’s passage made it one of Israel’s Basic Laws, which, similar to a constitution, underpin Israel’s legal system and are more difficult to repeal than regular laws.
On Sunday morning, one of the law’s top backers, Likud’s Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, said it was meant to save Israel from liberal rulings of its High Court of Justice.
“The nation-state law comes to state the obvious: the founding principles on which Israel was established, principles that unfortunately are being eroded, time and again, in High Court rulings that have turned this country from a nation-state of the Jewish people to a state of all its citizens, all its [African] infiltrators,” he told Army Radio.
The law has caused “no harm whatsoever to the civil equality that exists here,” added Levin, a former top attorney and deputy head of Israel’s Bar Association, while slamming Saturday’s Druze-led protest as “mostly political.”
Unlike Arab Israelis, members of both the Druze and Circassian minorities are subject to Israel’s mandatory draft and serve in large numbers alongside Jewish soldiers in some of the IDF’s most elite units.
Since the law’s passage on July 19, several Druze IDF officers have said they will resign their commissions in protest.
Netanyahu has been trying to placate Druze anger at the new law with a package of benefits.
The concession plan envisions new legislation to anchor the status of the Druze and Circassian communities in law and provide benefits to members of minority groups who serve in the security forces, the PMO said in a statement Wednesday. Support of Druze religious, educational, and cultural institutions would also be included in the legislation.
In addition, recognition of the contribution made by all minorities and communities that participate in the nation’s defense would be written into the country’s Basic Laws.