Nation-State Law Debate Continues: Update on Arab, Druze, Po...

Nation-State Law Debate Continues: Update on Arab, Druze, Political Parties, and American Jewish responses

August 28, 2018

Following the passage of Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, informally known as the Nation-State Bill or Nationality Bill, the Task Force issued two short briefing papers on the controversy surrounding the legislation itself, and the initial wave of response from Arab society. The post below reflects the ongoing discourse and responses to the law they as they continue to unfold in Israel and abroad.

While initial opposition to the legislation was focused on broadly shared concerns about Israel’s commitment to equal citizenship for all, since its passage, this discourse has become differentiated by community groups and interests. The Druze community, wider Arab society, and Jewish political leadership have coalesced around different critiques.

Debate has also been ongoing in the American Jewish community. Numerous major Jewish organizations were quick to issue critical statements when the law was passed, with some also issuing statements in support. Since, American Jewish communal, professional and thought leaders continue to discuss the law’s severity, legitimacy, and cause for concern in the public sphere.

Summaries of discourse and response below:

Druze: The Druze community was first to take action against the Law. Grounded in the Druze ‘blood covenant’ with the State of Israel (in which Druze men serve in the military and the community is generally a strong supporter of the state) this opposition took the form of petitions filed with the Supreme Court, criticism by Druze leadership, and both high and low-ranking military personnel, and culminated in a major demonstration in Tel Aviv on August 4.

The Druze reaction was acknowledged by top Jewish government and military officials, including many who spoke at the demonstration. Some have cited Druze commitment and service to the State, while others speak of equal citizenship rights for all. The Druze community is also internally divided. Some leaders want to accept a government offer from Prime Minister Netanyahu, comprising an economic development package and possibly additional legislation to affirm their special relationship with the state, while others want to continue pressing the broader principle of equal citizenship.

Since the demonstration, another petition has been filed with the Supreme Court, and Prime Minister Netanyahu has established a special Knesset panel to address Druze concerns.

Arab society: While there was significant outcry against the legislation from within Arab society, community and political leaders were slower to launch a coordinated response. Some attribute this to the shock over the passage of the Law, while others suggest that this “relatively restrained approach” may be an intentional effort not to  “cast a shadow over the continuation of cooperation with the government regarding the implementation of the five-year plan.”

Following a series of small protests, petitions, and appeals to the international community in the weeks after the legislation was passed, the first major coordinated response came in the form of a public demonstration on August 11 in Tel Aviv, organized by the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee and endorsed by Israel's Arab Joint List Party. Unlike the Druze protest, most Jewish members of Knesset opposition parties did not attend because it included support for Palestinian nationalism, including (against the requests of the organizers) waving of Palestinian flags and chants that Palestine will be freed “with spirit and blood.”

Druze officials, too, chastised the waving of Palestinian flags. Druze Zionist Union MK Saleh Saed calling it an act of "unnecessary defiance that harms our justified campaign against the Nationality Law."

Knesset Opposition Parties: Among the center-left opposition, only MKs from the left-wing, social democratic Meretz party, and two MKS from the center-left Zionist Union party (including Zohair Bahloul who announced his resignation following the passage of the law) attended the Aug. 11 demonstration.

Chairman of the Zionist Union Avi Gabbay announced he would forgo the protest, as its organizers support the Palestinian 'right of return,' stating,"[the demonstration] is organized by people from Balad and the Joint List… they don't believe in a Jewish state. I can go to a protest that talks about equal rights, but we will definitely not be at this demonstration, it doesn't matter what it is for." Opposition leader Tzipi Livni made similar statements on Israel's Army Radio prior to the protest, announcing she would not participate, as Joint List members do not share her view that Israel is the nation-state of the Jews.

Meretz MK Michal Rozin and others criticized opposition leaders’ absence from the protest. "It's not a big deal to demand equal rights for people you totally agree with…what is a big deal is standing for equality and against the nation-state law that discriminates against the Arab minority,” Rozin said. Attending the Druze protest but not the wider Arab protest, she stated, supports "Netanyahu's system of hierarchical citizenship."

Backers of the nation-state law in Israel's government and Knesset responded harshly to displays of Palestinian nationalism at the protest, stating they only proved the new legislation's necessity. Reportedly, the expressions of Palestinian nationalism at the demonstration continue to be the subject of ongoing debate within the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee and among the Israeli Arab public.

Tens of thousands of Arab citizens of Israel and their supporters protest in Rabin Square against the Nation-State Law, August 11, 2018 (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

American Jewish Responses to the Nation-State Law

Debate within the American Jewish community about the Law and its implications for the Arab minority continues as well. Numerous American Jewish organizations released statements on the Law, both critical and expressing concerns for state-minority relations, and in support, suggesting concerns for equal rights due to the affirmation of Israel’s Jewish character is misplaced.

Much of the criticism centered on organizations’ view that the law is unnecessary and potentially dangerous to the future of Israel. Several declared their commitment to deeper engagement in Israel,furthering shared society values, and the integration of non-Jewish minorities in the State. Statements in this vein were issued by the following organizations:

The American Jewish Committee (AJC)

The National Council of Jewish Women

Anti-Defamation League (ADL)

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA)

Union for Reform Judaism

Jewish Federations of North America

International Fellowship of Christians and Jews,

The Israeli Policy Forum

The New Israel Fund
J Street

T’ruah

American Jewish organizations publicly supporting the Law cited the Jewish people’s historic link with the land of Israel and that Israel was established as the national homeland of the Jewish people. They have stated that the Law codifies principles that have been in place since the establishment of the State, and that the Law does not change the status of minorities in Israel. The following organizations issued statements supporting the Law:

Rabbinical Council of America

National Council of Young Israel

Orthodox Union

Zionist Organization of America

In public discourse, numerous thought leaders continue to argue about the necessity and severity of the law through editorials and opinion columns, on both sides of the debate.

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