Nation-state protest creates powerful unity between Jews and Arabs

THE DEBATE ABOUT the purpose of Zionism has never been as vociferous in Israel as it has been since the passing of the controversial nation-state law. Supporters claim it is necessary to enshrine the Jewish character of the state in law; Opponents claim it undermines Israeli democracy through its omission of the words ‘equality, democracy’ or reference to the Declaration of Independence.

Yohanan Plesner, a former Kadima MK and today the head of the Israel Democracy Institute, charged that Likud legislators had sought to create a picture of “patriots and non-patriots” by means of the law and its divided support in the Knesset. In that aim, the law has achieved its goal spectacularly.

In the month since its passing, objections have been raised by many Israelis, most notably the Druze, who are seen as “blood brothers” by many Jewish Israelis for their sacrifice to the country through IDF service.

Responding to the sympathy expressed by many Israelis to the Druze — but not to wider Arab opposition to the law — Benny Begin, the only Likud MK to oppose the law, wrote in Haaretz objecting to statements that claimed “only those who have performed mandatory military service are deserving of rights.” Begin added: “this condition has no basis. The state does not grant rights to its citizens, because they are born with rights.”

This is a view I share, which is why I attended the protest organised by the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee in Tel Aviv on August 11.

Unlike the rally on the previous Saturday night where Kikar Rabin was filled with Druze and Israeli flags, the committee had requested that no flags be waved at this rally. Despite this call, there were a number of Israeli flags, and a small group waved Palestinian flags and chanted slogans that were not in accord with the purpose of the demonstration, such as “with spirit and blood we will liberate Palestine“.

These were later highlighted by Prime Minister Netanyahu on his social media accounts. “There is no better testament to the need for the nation-state law. We will continue waving the Israeli flag and singing Hatikva with great pride,” he tweeted.

In choosing to highlight only the most extreme elements of the demonstration, shown by the majority at the rally who were chanting slogans such as “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies” and “The nation demands democracy and equality”, Netanyahu again chose a leadership style that divides rather than unites.

Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken addresses the crowd (Tomer Appelbaum)

One of the most moving speeches at the rally came from Amos Schocken, the publisher of Haaretz, who said “the goal of the law is perfectly clear: Israel’s Palestinian-Israeli citizens will have fewer rights.” He added, “the law is guided toward providing a basis for discrimination against Arab citizens in court rulings, and to make it so that Israel’s definition as a Jewish state will trump the right for equality.”

This is already happening. On August 8, an Israeli state’s attorney said he plans to utilise the law to defend controversial legislation that seeks to legalise wildcat West Bank outposts.

After the rally, I posted my video report for Plus61J to my Facebook page with the heading, “Powerful to see the unity between Jews and Arabs in Tel-Aviv tonight.” In the video, which included interviews with former Shin Bet Director Ami Ayalon, a Knesset member, and Jewish and Arab demonstrators, it was clear that for many people, the demonstration was far more about calling for equality than undermining anyone’s right to live here, as had been misrepresented by Netanyahu’s Facebook post about the rally.

I said it was possible for Israel to have a Jewish character through the use of the Hebrew calendar, language and symbols without diminishing the culture and traditions of non-Jewish populations who have lived here for generations. That’s how Zionism has been understood by the majority of Israelis since 1948, and why so many liberal Zionists and even some on the Right, like Begin, oppose this law.

In a personal response to the video, Yigal Nissel, the JNF Australia Education Shaliach in Sydney, expressed his support for the law, and criticised those like myself and Opposition leader Tzipi Livni who preferred a law that referenced democracy and equality.

Nissel wrote in social media: “The Declaration of Independence was written in the hope that there would be peace … that the Arabs would accept the State of Israel as their state. But it did not happen and unfortunately will not happen in the future. Ittay, it’s time to be realistic. You cannot believe both in a Jewish state and in equal rights for Arabs. Not when they prefer to see us in the sea than in the ground. That’s my opinion.”

“You cannot believe both in a Jewish state and in equal rights for Arabs,” wrote Nissel. “Not when they prefer to see us in the sea than in the ground. That’s my opinion.” After being heavily criticised for this gross generalisation about 1.8 million Israelis, Nissel later deleted the comment.

After being heavily criticised for this gross generalisation about 1.8 million Israelis, Nissel deleted the comment. He later clarified to Plus61J that he did believe in equality for everyone who is “loyal to the state” but wanted to “raise the point that we cannot give equal rights to those who call for the destruction of Israel, regardless of their religion.”

Nissel made his comment based on the chants he saw on his social media feed of the rally that had been shared by Netanyahu and others on the Right, which led him to conclude that the demonstration was calling for the destruction of Israel. He also said JNF Australia had no view on the law as it is a non-political organisation.

The JNF has invited the former prime minister of Israel, Ehud Barak, to be its keynote speaker in Australia next month. Barak recently criticised Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, from the Jewish Home party, for warning of an “earthquake” if the High Court were to overturn the law. “Threats like that are only heard in proto-fascist regimes,” Barak said. He said the new legislation must be rejected by the court because it contradicted the Declaration of Independence.

What’s clear from these debates is there is now an open struggle between those who believe equality needs to lie at the core of the Zionist project, and those who don’t. This is a new dividing line that may ultimately shape how we define ourselves, our relationship to Israel and how the rest of the world views us.

Photo: Thousands protest in Tel Aviv on August 11 (Facebook)

Originally published at The Big Smoke.

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