druze protest israel
Thousands protest Israel's nation-state law
01:21 - Source: CNN
Jerusalem CNN  — 

Tens of thousands of protesters packed Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Saturday night in the largest protest yet against Israel’s controversial nation-state law. Led by Israel’s Druze minority, the crowd, filling nearly every square foot of the city’s central square, repeatedly cheered “Equality!” as speakers railed against the recently passed legislation.

Druze leaders say the nation-state law makes them feel like second-class citizens because it doesn’t mention equality or minority rights. The law focuses almost exclusively on enshrining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

“The nation-state law in its current form does not recognize all Israeli citizens as equals,” said Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai at the protest. “For the love of the nation, I call all of us to cancel or amend the law that leaves the ‘other’ outside the circle and to remove this ugly stain from the face of our state of Israel.”

It’s a criticism that Druze and Palestinian citizens of Israel have leveled at the law since even before it was passed. But Druze hold a special place in Israeli society.

The Druze, a religious sect spread throughout Israel, Lebanon and Syria, make up a subset of Israel’s Arab population. They are fiercely loyal to the country in which they live. Numbering fewer than 150,000, Israeli Druze nonetheless participate in every aspect of Israeli society. They support the state of Israel, are active in parliament and, crucially, serve in the Israeli army.

“All our lives we took pride in an enlightened, democratic, and free state of Israel with the freedom and dignity of man as a supreme value. We never questioned the Jewish identity of the state,” said Sheikh Muafak Tarif, the spiritual leader of the Druze in Israel.

“No one can teach us about sacrifice. No one can preach to us about loyalty. Military cemeteries and hundreds of fallen soldiers will testify to it. The same way we fight for the existence of the state, we are determined to fight for the right to live in equality and dignity. We are Israelis. We are brothers,” Tarif said at the rally.

In a sign of growing anger over the law, two Druze officers in the Israeli military threatened to resign. Trying to allay the anger, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot urged soldiers to “leave the controversial political issues outside the military,” calling the IDF the “army of the people.”

Retired Brig. Gen. Amal Asad, one of the organizers of the protest, struck a similar tone in his speech. “From this rally, with joint hands and hearts, we go forward for many more years of joint life in Israel in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. We are ready to discuss any element in the government to find a solution to the issue for the benefit and the future of our children,” he said.

Following the Druze outcry over the law, passed two weeks ago, a number of politicians who voted for the law have said it needs to be addressed in some way to acknowledge the Druze contribution to Israel. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Jewish Home Party, said on Twitter that a special law needs to be passed for what he called the “Druze brothers,” adding that it was “not our intention” to hurt them.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who pushed for the legislation, has repeatedly refused any suggestion to amend the law.

He met with Druze leaders in recent days in an attempt to find a compromise that would work for both sides. After the meetings, Netanyahu hailed a “historic outline” that would recognize the contributions of the Druze community. The proposal included investment in Druze towns and villages, a special law recognizing the Druze and other minorities who serve in the security forces and support for Druze culture and institutions.

But follow-up meetings quickly fell apart. . Asad, who was part of the meetings, told Israel’s YNET news that Netanyahu refused to sit with someone who accused the Israeli leader of running an apartheid state. On Asad’s Facebook page last week, he warned Israel could become an apartheid state because of laws like the nation-state law.

As news spread of the proposed compromise, there was little indication it had done anything to assuage Druze anger over the nation-state law. Some protesters at the Saturday night rally held signs that read “Yes to equality; no to bribery” in an apparent reference to the compromise. With Israel’s parliament in recess until October, any major compromises are already on hold.