An estimated 50,000-plus people, waving Israeli and Druze flags and calling for equality, gathered at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Saturday night to demonstrate against the controversial Jewish nation-state law.
Leaders of the Druze community were among the key organizers of the demonstration.
Members of the community serve in the Israeli army and have expressed particular outrage at the law’s provisions, saying it renders them second-class citizens.
“Despite our unlimited loyalty to the state, the state doesn’t consider us equals,” Israeli Druze spiritual leader Sheikh Muafak Tarif said in a speech at the rally.
Former Labor MK Shachiv Shnaan, a member of the Druze community who lost his son Kamil Shnaan, 22, last year in a terror attack at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, gave a moving address to the crowds, lamenting the law.
“At the Temple Mount in holy Jerusalem, my beloved son Kamil gave back his soul to the creator of the world, and I began a new life filled with mountains of pain and rivers of tears. When the law was approved, I understood that I have become a second-class citizen, and that my son has become a second-class fallen [fighter],” he said.
The demonstration took place amid heightened tensions over the legislation. The nation-state law — 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 and opposition, the international community, and Jewish groups abroad.
In an interview with Hadashot TV on Saturday night, Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan suggested that people with an anti-government political agenda were “stirring divisions” in Israeli society over the legislation.
Erdan insisted that the government greatly appreciated the Druze community’s contribution to Israel, and that “we agree with all the Druze demands” as highlighted by the rally — but said such demands were already met, anchored in existing laws. “This rally has nothing to do with the nation-state law,” he said. This law merely “completes” existing laws to stress that Israel is the national home of the Jewish people. “There is not a word in this law that hurts the Druze community or any other community,” Erdan said.
At the rally, by contrast, the former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo castigated the new law and empathized with the anger over it from Israeli minorities.
“What has been done is an injustice to 20 percent of Israel’s population, and first and foremost to the Druze who have faithfully served the state from the day of its establishment,” said Pardo. “This is not about right or left. This is not an issue of which party you vote for. It’s a matter of values.”
Former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi told the news channel from the rally that he was there to show his support for the Druze community. “I’m here to tell them I’m with them, I’ve known them for decades, we have fought alongside each other, and have died together.”
Ashkenazi said Jewish Israelis and Druze live together in harmony, adding he hoped a solution would be found quickly.
Participants and speakers at the rally on Saturday included Sheikh Tarif; Brig. Gen. (res.) Amal As’ad; former Shin Bet heads Yuval Diskin and Ami Ayalon; Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai; and TV host and social commentator Lucy Aharish.
Huldai said in his address to the crowd that the legislation was an “ugly stain” on Israel’s democracy and called for the law to be canceled or changed.
“The nation-state law in its current version does not recognize all of Israel’s citizens as equals. In the name of love for the nation, I stand before you today and call on us to abolish or amend the basic law that leaves the ‘other’ on the outskirts, and remove this ugly stain from the face of our state of Israel,” Huldai said.
Diskin, a frequent critic of the Netanyahu government, called the law an “abomination.”
Ahead of the rally, a number of false Whatsapp messages began circulating online purporting to show Labor party members colluding with Druze activists leading the campaign against the law and helping to organize the protest.
Screenshots of the conversations were posted to the social media accounts of known right-wing activists and members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, including rapper and far-right provocateur Yoav Eliasi “The Shadow,” and Likud activist Nidal Ibrahim Nidal.
The Labor party filed a police complaint against Eliasi and Nidal for distributing the “fake correspondence” on behalf of the Likud.
Ibrahim told Hadashot TV that he had spoken to the police about the incident and “I trust them to get to the truth of the issue.”
The nation-state law has been criticized as discriminatory toward Israel’s non-Jewish minorities, and also downgrades the status of Arabic so that it is no longer an official language in Israel.
The legislation has prompted particular outrage from the Druze community, which takes pride in its service in the Israel Defense Forces.
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 beginning of the week, several Druze IDF officers have said they will resign their commissions in protest of the legislation, which was passed as a Basic Law on July 19.
On Thursday, Netanyahu angrily walked out of a meeting with Druze leaders when a prominent Druze activist and former IDF brigadier general criticized the controversial nation-state law passed last month.
Netanyahu was apparently enraged by Brig. Gen. (res.) Amal As’ad accusing him of turning Israel into an “apartheid state” and calling the law “evil and racist.”
As’ad on Friday told Hadashot news he said no such thing, implying Netanyahu was looking for an excuse to end the meeting.
“I wrote a post 10 days ago in which I wrote that if that law is realized Israel is on the path to apartheid, and I’m not the only one saying that,” he said. He also insisted that he had not crashed the meeting, contrary to some accounts.
But Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who was in the meeting, disputed his account.
“I heard with my own ears the outrageous statement that Israel is an apartheid state,” said Levin.
As’ad, a former infantry commander and veteran of multiple wars who lost a brother in fighting in the Gaza Strip, in the past expressed support for the Likud party. He has been active in initiatives to commemorate the sacrifices of Druze IDF soldiers.
He urged Druze to come to Tel Aviv on Saturday and take part in the protest, saying the “demonstration is for the state of Israel, not against it.”
Netanyahu has been trying to placate Druze anger at the new law with a package of benefits.
A 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, education, and culture institutes would also be included in the legislation.
In addition, recognition of the contribution made by all minorities and communities that participate in the defense of the state would be written into the country’s Basic Laws.
In an apparent protest against the legislation, President Reuven Rivlin has reportedly vowed to sign the nation-state law in Arabic. Dr. Thabet Abu Rass of the Abraham Fund, which supports Jewish-Bedouin coexistence, claimed Monday that Rivlin made the comment at the sidelines of a conference in the Bedouin village of Kuseife that aimed to bolster employment rates in the Arab community.
A spokesperson for Rivlin on Tuesday declined a Times of Israel request to confirm or comment on the matter.
On Sunday, Rivlin met with regional council heads from the Druze community, who also slammed the law. He told them that “our partnership exists at the core and foundation of this state.”
“I expressed my opinion during the Knesset discussions,” he added. “I have no doubt that you are legally equal, and we should make sure that you also feel equal.”
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 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.