“We have on this land that which makes life worth living,” Mohammed Darwish wrote in one of his famous poems, expressing the aspiration of everyone everywhere – including Palestinians – to live a life of peace and dignity. This was the clear message of the tens of thousands of people who came to the demonstration Saturday night from all the Arab communities to the heart of Israel: We are here to stay. We do not live here temporarily. Those who lived through the Nakba and the military government, the protesters said, will live through the nation-state law too.
The demonstration and march Saturday night were not just one more protest by Arab society. The very decision to demonstrate in Tel Aviv, and not in an Arab community such as Nazareth or Sakhnin, was a clear message. Arab society will not give up its citizenship. This country was not empty in 1948.
One of the symptoms of Arab society in recent years has been indifference to any public protest. Internal differences of opinion and power struggles among the various political parties have eroded the faith of Arab society in their political leadership. Polarization on regional issues, first and foremost the war in Syria, have permeated Arab society and contributed to the crisis of confidence. Most marches and rallies have turned into a kind of get-together of MKs and a symbolic representation of the political parties, but the picture yesterday was entirely different. The protesters represented every level of Arab society, especially families and young couples, women and men, who came from the Galilee, the Arab communities in central Israel, the Negev and the mixed cities. The nation-state law has trickled down and struck at the indifferent grassroots, those who are not politically involved.
People who know Arab society recognized people in attendance who have historically not been part of the Arab parties’ electoral base, but rather of the Israeli establishment. Those people saw the Israeli establishment as a springboard and an opportunity to integrate into Israeli society. But the nation-state law was a slap in their face, and so they decided to come to the square. Quite a few were there with children and babies, unafraid of the crowds and clashes.
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The demonstration and the march in Tel Aviv broke a barrier with Israeli society. Jews were prominently present, people who in ordinary times don’t join demonstrations; they certainly wouldn’t come all the way from the Galilee to protest. It can’t be compared to the rally the Druze held the week before because the component of the military was absent. Both sides know that residues of conflict can’t be made to disappear, no matter how big the rally, but the protest yesterday saw a few rays of light. Jews were not deterred by a Palestinian flag flying in the heart of Tel Aviv, Arabs did not call on Jews to leave the rally, but rather walked together with them. Each with his or her own beliefs, with one common denominator – to bring down the nation-state law.
As for Arab society internally, yesterday was a kind of referendum about its political leadership, including the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee and the Joint List. This leadership can take credit for an achievement. But the leadership is also marred in a deep old debate about cooperating with Jews – are we all citizens of Israel, or should we focus on the Arab and Palestinian national viewpoint and seek political separation, including representation in the Knesset.
This debate has grown in recent days and cracked the show of unity the organizers sought. The challenge facing the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, with its various components, will largely depend on reducing internal divisions of opinion, and on its ability to channel the tailwind it received from Saturday night’s rally to continuing the public and democratic struggle to revoke the nation-state law and achieve equality for all citizens of Israel.