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In Israel, tiny Druze minority galvanizes opposition to nation-state law

Why We Wrote This

Israel’s Druze, a minority within a minority, are respected by Israeli Jews for their military service and loyalty to the state. Now they are in the vanguard of a fight for equal rights and democracy.

Corinna Kern/Reuters
Leaders from Israel's Druze minority, along with Israeli Jews, rally to protest the controversial new nation-state law in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, Aug. 4, 2018.

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Since its passage July 19 by the Israeli parliament, a new law defining Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people” has faced a wave of criticism among a wide swath of Jews and Arabs. Many of them see it as a nationalist trampling of Israel’s democracy and minority rights. And for the tiny Druze community, which is celebrated for its military service but has strained relations with other Israeli Arabs, the law is seen as insulting. Since its passage, two Druze officers publicly resigned from the Israeli military, saying they had been reduced to second-class citizens. Now the Druze find themselves at the forefront of a fight for equal rights for all Arab citizens in Israel. On Saturday night, tens of thousands of Druze and other Israelis demonstrated against the nation-state law in Tel Aviv. “We believe it’s a bad law for all minorities, but specifically for those minorities who see themselves as Israelis,’’ says Amir Khnifess, a recent postdoctoral fellow in political science at Georgetown University who runs a center promoting Druze ties to Israel. “What we won’t accept is a law that defines us as second-class citizens.”

In decades of demonstrations at Rabin Square, it was an unprecedented sight. With Tel Aviv’s 20-story City Hall lit up in the five-colored Druze Arab flag, tens of thousands of Jewish and Druze demonstrators on Saturday chanted in Arabic and Hebrew, “Equality, Equality.”

The outpouring was a protest against Israel’s recently passed “nation state” law, a piece of constitutional legislation enshrining the country’s Jewish character that critics say downgrades Arab citizens of Israel, who make up 21 percent of the population, and omits mention of democratic values.

Participation in the high-profile mass protest was a departure for the Druze, a small religious minority within the larger Arab minority who are celebrated in Israel for their patriotism and military service but have strained relations with other Israeli Arabs.

But the protest against the nation-state law has put the community in a dramatic new position: as leaders in the campaign for equal rights between all Arabs and Jews in Israel.

“I’m happy that there are so many people that are supporting us. I’m happy that we are waving the Druze flag at Rabin Square,” says Aezz Abrukin from the Druze village of Isfiya in northern Israel.

Wearing a shirt with the Jewish Star of David rendered in the colors of the Druze flag, Mr. Abrukin explains that his father was killed serving in Israel’s Border Patrol, and that he flies the Druze and Israeli flag on his jeep every Independence Day.

“The prime minister should support us. He should turn on the television and see what is happening here,” he says. “We need to change this law. I’m not political, but we need a law that will protect our rights, like others.’’

Dubbed, “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” the law has been hailed by supporters like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a necessary formalization of the country’s Jewish identity. Detractors say the law is unnecessary at best, and a nationalist trampling of Israel’s democracy and minority rights at worst.

The legislation elevates the status of Hebrew over Arabic (until now an official language in Israel), encourages “Jewish settlement,” and omits any reference to democracy or equality for Israel’s Arab population. The July 19 passage of the law triggered a wave of criticism among a wide swath of Jews and Arabs.

The Druze, who number about 150,000 out of Israel’s population of nearly 9 million, saw the law as an insult to their patriotism and contribution to the country. In the weeks since the law’s passage, two Druze officers publicly resigned from the Israeli military, bemoaning that they had been reduced to second-class citizens.

“We believe it’s a bad law for all minorities, but specifically for those minorities who see themselves as Israelis,’’ says Amir Khnifess, a recent post-doctoral fellow in political science at Georgetown University who runs a center promoting Druze ties to Israel.

An old alliance

The turnout Saturday night “shows you that the struggle is not unique to the Druze community – it’s also a struggle for every other Israeli who feels hurt,” he says. “We were singing the [Israeli national anthem] ‘Hatikvah,’ and we were united with our Israeli identity, but what we won’t accept is a law that defines us as second-class citizens.”

The cooperation between Israeli Jews and Druze – part of a Middle Eastern community that also forms minorities in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan – extends back to before Israel’s establishment in 1948.

It was an alliance of minorities. Labeled infidels by some Muslim religious leaders, several Druze groups in British Mandatory Palestine threw in their lot with the Zionists, assuming that the Jews’ history of suffering anti-Semitism would make them sensitive to minority rights.

In recent decades, the Druze have enthusiastically embraced service in combat units, while Druze politicians have been elected to the parliament on the ticket of both right-wing and left-wing Zionist political parties. Their patriotism has kept the Druze at a distance from most Christian and Muslim citizens, who, although they seek equal rights as well, increasingly identify as Palestinians and recoil from Zionism. The Druze are often insulted by fellow Arabs as “dogs” of the Zionists.

Now the Druze – despite some initial discussion of a separate deal with the government to address the community’s status –  find themselves at the forefront of a fight for equal rights for all Arab citizens in Israel.

“The wave of demonstration by the Druze community against the nation-state law can be the beginning of a more comprehensive process, in which the Druze could be the spearhead of a struggle for the equality of all Israeli citizen minorities, Muslim and Christians,’’ wrote Israeli author David Grossman on the eve of the rally in the Haaretz newspaper.

Wide support for Druze

The Druze reputation as enthusiastic soldiers earns them legitimacy and sympathy across a wide spectrum of Israelis. Though a survey by Israel’s Walla! News website found that 58 percent of Israelis support the law, 54 percent of respondents in the same poll said the Druze campaign against the law is justified.

“The pain of the Druze is genuine and should be respected,” said Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, of the far-right Jewish Home party, in an interview with Israeli Army Radio Sunday. Shaked nonetheless defended the law and said it shouldn’t be changed.

Despite that respect, the Druze say they face the same discrimination as other minorities in civilian life. The Druze complain they can’t get authorization to build in their villages and suffer discrimination when job hunting.

“It’s easy to identify with the Druze. I was a paratrooper, and I served with them,’’ says Dror Schneider, an engineering consultant who attended the rally and criticizes the discrimination they often face. “If they try to rent an apartment in Tel Aviv, who will rent to another Arab?”

In an effort to mollify the Druze last week, Mr. Netanyahu offered to invest more government funds in Druze villages and pass a law recognizing the status of minorities who serve in Israeli security forces. At the same time, however, Netanyahu and his political allies alleged that the Druze didn’t understand the law and had been misled by Israeli left wingers. Druze leaders ultimately rejected the offer.

“They said this has nothing to do with money, this has to do with our Israeli identity,” says Eran Zinger, a Middle East editor at Israel’s public broadcast corporation, Kan. “Their role is to remind Israelis that first Israel is for [all] Israelis, and only then Israel is for the Jews.”

No separate deals

Though the Druze and other Arab groups speak a different political language, they share the same goal of changing the law or nullifying it, Mr. Zinger says.

A group of Druze Israeli parliamentarians were the first to submit a petition to Israel’s Supreme Court against the law, a move followed by other Israeli opponents of the government. This Saturday, the Druze protest will be followed up by another Rabin Square demonstration by other Arab groups.

While Druze groups aren’t likely to join, Mr. Khnifess says the Druze campaign would continue and that there would be no separate deals with the government.

“That doesn’t solve the problem with the basic law; it complicates the whole situation, and divides all of Israeli society into more groups,’’ he says. “We will continue our struggle, until the law is removed or amended, until it provides equality for all citizens.”

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