Israel’s divisive Nationality Law incites political backlash

Opposition chief Tzipi Livni apologises to Druze community for discriminatory law

The Druze community demonstrates against the controversial Nationality Law in Rabin square, Tel Aviv, Israel. Photograph: Ebir Sultan/EPA

The Druze community demonstrates against the controversial Nationality Law in Rabin square, Tel Aviv, Israel. Photograph: Ebir Sultan/EPA

 

Opposition politicians have criticised the government for discriminating against Israel’s non-Jewish minorities.

During a stormy debate on Wednesday in the Israeli parliament – the Knesset – to discuss the controversial Nationality Law, which passed last month, protesters were evicted from the public gallery after holding up copies of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

Newly appointed opposition leader Tzipi Livni apologised to members of the Druze community for the “discriminatory law” and for the fact that prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu “didn’t bother showing up” for the special session, called for by the opposition during the Knesset’s summer recess.

“The real question is who is for and who is against the Declaration of Independence. And why is prime minister Netanyahu against the Declaration of Independence? The government is tearing up the Declaration of Independence and with it, the entire nation,” said Ms Livni.

The Nationality Law 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 enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

The strongest backlash against the measure came from Israel’s 150,000-member Druze community. The Arabic-speaking Druze, followers of a secretive offshoot of Shia Islam, are loyal citizens who serve in the Israeli Defence Forces.

On Saturday night tens of thousands of Druze travelled from towns and villages in the Galilee to Tel Aviv for an unprecedented protest.

“No one can preach to us about loyalty and the military cemeteries testify to this. Despite our total loyalty, the state does not see us as equal,” Druze spiritual leader Sheikh Mowafaq Tarif told the crowd.

Mr Netanyahu has offered a package of financial benefits and new legislation to anchor the status of the Druze community. But Druze activists are continuing the campaign to repeal the law.

The Druze backlash has taken the Israeli leadership by surprise. After the Knesset passed the law, two Druze officers resigned from the Israeli Defence Forces and others expressed regret that they had enlisted in combat units.

Mr Netanyahu insists the legislation is essential to ensure Israel’s Jewish character for generations to come and promised the Druze minority would not be adversely affected.

The Nationality Law still faces a legal challenge. But minister for justice Ayelet Shaked, whose right-wing Jewish Home party was an enthusiastic backer of the legislation, warned of serious consequences if the high court struck down the measure.