TENS OF thousands of Israeli Druze gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square in early August to rally against the contentious Nation-State Law that they claim discriminates against their community. They traveled in chartered buses and convoys of cars from across Druze towns and villages in northern Israel for an unprecedented protest from a community that prides itself for its loyalty to the state and the fact that 80 percent of young Druze males enlist in the Israel Defense Forces – a higher percentage than in the Jewish sector. The protesters waved hundreds of brightly colored Druze flags alongside Israeli flags, as Tel Aviv’s City Hall also lit up in the colors of the Druze flag. The Druze were joined by other Israelis, including retired senior army officers and intelligence officials, boosting the turnout at the August 4 rally to over 100,000 people – one of Israel’s largest demonstrations in recent years. The protest marked the first time in recent memory that the Arabic-speaking Druze, followers of a secretive offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, had staged a large public protest. The community, which today numbers 150,000, was designated by the government in 1957 as a distinct ethnic community at the request of its communal leaders. The August rally also marked the biggest protest to date against the Nation-State Law, passed in July, which enshrines Israel’s Jewish character and downgrades the status of the Arabic language. Critics say the law discriminates against Arabs and other minorities and shifts the balance between Israel’s Jewish and democratic elements. “No one can preach to us about loyalty and the military cemeteries testify to this. Despite our utter loyalty, the state does not see us as equal,” Druze spiritual leader Sheikh Mowafaq Tarif told the crowd. “Just as we fight for the existence and security of the state, so are we determined to fight together for its character and right to live in it in equality and dignity,” Tarif said. Retired Brig.-Gen. Amal Asad, one of the leaders of the Druze campaign against the legislation, said the demand was for equality. “We came here to tell the entire Israeli nation, with all of the Israeli people, that this country is for all of us. We were born here, we will die here. We love this country, we have defended it, and we will continue to live here together – Jews, Arabs, Druze, Circassians, Bedouins, as equal brothers. We are all Israelis,” he said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was keen to prevent the August rally and hoped a package of financial benefits and new legislation to anchor the status of the Druze community would be enough to end the Druze protests. The package included support for community institutions, the strengthening of the existing communities and the establishment of additional Druze communities as necessary. Some community leaders were reportedly willing to reach a compromise, but Druze activists insisted on pressing for the Nation-State Law to be repealed, and the Rabin Square protest went ahead as planned. A few days ahead of the rally, a last-ditch effort by Netanyahu to stop the protest failed, when he abruptly ended a meeting with Asad and other Druze officials after Asad warned the new law would “lead to apartheid.” Dr. Amir Khnifess, the chairman of the Druze Forum Against the Nation-State Law, told The Jerusalem Report that although some of the community’s religious leaders were prepared to accept the package offered by the prime minister, there remains a large consensus in the Druze community against the law. “The package offered by the prime minister is a very bad deal. It doesn’t offer any solution to the problem – the Nation-State Law itself. The package is about our rights, which I believe we should have received a long time ago because we are citizens of the state and fulfill all our duties.”
According to Khnifess, the Nation-State Law is dividing both the Druze community and Israeli society. “The one thing I don’t understand is why the prime minister and the leaders of this government don’t acknowledge that there is a problem here and that they should rethink. The question is where do you want to take the State of Israel? Do you want a democratic state based on equality or a dictatorship based on religious principles?” The Druze backlash clearly took the Israeli leadership by surprise. Likud Knesset Member Avi Dichter, who co-sponsored the law, was heckled by angry Druze during a meeting awarding scholarships to Druze students. After the Knesset passed the law, two Druze officers resigned from the IDF and others expressed regret that they had enlisted in combat units. “This morning when I woke up to return to my base, I asked myself why? Why do I need to serve the state?” said one of the officers, Capt. Amir Jamal, who also called to end the compulsory military draft for the Druze. “This country that I, along with my two brothers and my father, served with dedication, purpose and love of our homeland – in the end, what do we get? We are second-class citizens,” he wrote in an open letter to the prime minister.