Amal Asaad feels like he is fighting the battle of his life.
That’s not a small statement to say about a man who fought valiantly for nearly three decades on the battlefield on behalf of the State of Israel, was injured three times, and lost a brother in clashes with terrorists.
Asaad enlisted in the IDF in 1973, and fought that same year in the Battle of the Chinese Farm against the Egyptian Army during the Yom Kippur War. He signed on for more service, became an officer, and spent about 15 years conducting operations in Lebanon including numerous late-night covert raids against PLO terrorist bases.
In 1998 Asaad made history, becoming the first Druze officer promoted to the rank of brigadier-general, and serving as head of the IDF’s Civil Administration, the unit responsible for civilian coordination with the Palestinian Authority.
For the last two weeks, though, Asaad has been engaged in a new battle, this time out of uniform. As one of the most accomplished members of the Druze community in Israel, he is leading the opposition to the Nation-State Law that passed last month. On Tuesday, he was at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to help prepare for the mega-protest rally scheduled for Saturday night.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party tend to fend off opposition by accusing their critics of belonging to the Left. That cannot be done with Asaad – he can’t be accused of opposing the Nation-State Law out of some political ambition to topple Netanyahu. On the contrary: in 1999, just after retiring from the IDF, he joined the Likud Party and even served a brief stint as one of the party’s campaign managers ahead of the general election later that year.
And while Asaad is currently caught up in the police investigation involving Labor and Social Services Minister Haim Katz and Israel Aerospace Industries, he is what is often referred to as the “salt of the earth,” the finest of the finest. Speaking to him this week, though, I heard a person in pain, a soldier who feels betrayed by the country he thought was his own, and by a people he thought were his family.
“My people have been here for 400 years and we fought for this land and this country,” Asaad told me. “We defended it, and I felt like I was part of this family; and suddenly this law comes in and says: ‘Hold on one minute. This home is just for Jews, you need to leave and stand outside and you are no longer part of the family. If you want, behave nicely, and then we might give you approval to join. We will decide, since this is our home.’”
The Covenant of Blood – or Brit Damim as it is referred to in Hebrew – between the Druze and Israel grew out of the War of Independence in 1948, when the Druze community in the Carmel Mountains and the Galilee fought alongside Jews in their battle against the Arab armies that sought to destroy the nascent state.
In the years since, the Druze – who number about 120,000 in Israel – have turned into the most integrated minority in the country.
Approximately 80% of Druze men serve in the IDF, more than the percentage of Jewish men who do. Many Druze soldiers make careers out of the army, and a significant number reach the top ranks. They can also be found throughout the Border Police and the government. More than 420 Druze soldiers have been killed since the state’s founding.
BUT THAT all seems to be in danger due to Netanyahu’s Nation-State Law, which the Druze community claims renders them second-class citizens. The main problem is the absence of any language in the law about equal rights for minorities, like the Druze. While the 1948 Declaration of Independence promised equal rights for all inhabitants of Israel irrespective of religion, race or sex, the Nation-State Law does not.
Asaad wants to see the law canceled or fixed. It cannot remain the way it is today. “I want the majority in Israel to remain Jewish and for this to be the Jewish state,” he said. “But I want the Declaration of Independence to be the law so I can be Israeli and stand under the Israeli flag and salute it when Hatikva is playing.
“I have educated thousands of soldiers and generations of soldiers to love this country and to cherish the values of unity, democracy and equality,” he continued. “That is how we educated soldiers in the IDF, and this is how everyone throughout the country should be educated.”
So what was Netanyahu thinking, I asked Asaad. Why did the prime minister and the Likud push so hard for this bill to pass? Did they possibly not know what would happen?
“They knew exactly what they were doing,” he said. “That is why we are calling them out. This law is not good for Israel, not for Jews and not for non-Jews.”
If the law wasn’t enough, what really got under Asaad’s skin was a comment by Likud MK David Bitan, a close Netanyahu associate, who said last week that there “was no reason why a minority of 120,000 people should get special privileges.”
“It was transparent for the 62 MKs who voted for the law,” Asaad said. “Bitan claims we are only 120,000 people? We have done more for the state than hundreds of thousands of Jews.”
The government seems to understand it made a mistake. The first to admit so was Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who announced last week that the law harms “our Druze brothers,” and that it was not the coalition’s intention when passing the law.
Next was Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who said the law was passed too quickly and without proper consideration. “We were wrong and we need to fix it,” he said.
And last Friday, Netanyahu met with Druze leaders and promised to establish a committee, headed by his chief of staff, which will propose separate legislation to formalize the status of the Druze community in Israel. That doesn’t appease Asaad or his friends; the pain of the Nation-State Law will take time to pass.
What makes the Nation-State Law fiasco so interesting is that Netanyahu, a prime minister for more than 12 years, is not someone who usually makes these kinds of rookie mistakes. The Nation-State Law had been in the works for years, and there were more than enough people who warned that the way it was being written would alienate Israel’s minorities and undermine the country’s democratic character.
So why did Netanyahu push it through in its current form? Because he wasn’t thinking about the Druze, the Bedouin, the Israeli Arabs or the Circassians when advancing the law. He was thinking about how he could shore up his nationalistic credentials ahead of the next general elections, expected to be called shortly after the Knesset returns in October from its summer recess.
Sadly, elections are all that really matter for this coalition. The message to Amal Asaad and other Druze in the IDF is that they are no longer needed. Politics in Israel trumps everything.
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