It was the most polite protest I’ve ever been to in Israel. Officially, it wasn’t even a protest, but a rally.
Nearly all of the speakers on-stage at the Druze solidarity rally protesting against the nation-state law were careful to remain totally within the national consensus. “We never go to protests,” a Druze friend said to me. “It’s like we feel we need permission to do so.”
But away from the stage, the insult felt by the Druze Israelis who had arrived in their tens of thousands at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, was clear. “I’m a Likud member,” said Louay Mula, from the town of Yarka, in northern Israel. “But now, after Bibi made he made as second-class citizens, he has to go.” His cousin, Hussein Mula said he also voted Likud in 2015, “but now I won’t be voting for any party. I feel I don’t have civil rights anymore, so why should I take part in this charade.”
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Nearby, a young man stood wearing a T-shirt which he had designed himself, in the colors of the Druze flag and the slogan “Grade B Officer.” As a serving officer in an elite Israel Defense Forces unit, he asked not to be named, adding: “I know that if someone identified me here, at a political protest, while on active service, I can be reprimanded. But I don’t care anymore. They can fire me as well if they want.”
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Closer by the stage, things were a bit chaotic, very unlike the well-organized rallies that usually take place in Rabin Square. There were no security guards to make sure unauthorized people did not get onto the stage. The loudspeakers were underpowered and most of the speeches were barely audible to those at the far end of the square. There were insufficient numbers of Israeli and Druze flags and the backdrop on the stage had been put together at the last moment. But something about the lack of professionalism made it more authentic in comparison to the events of more experienced organizers, like Peace Now and the settler movement, who usually hold rallies in the iconic square.
It was an unlikely combination of protestors, numbering roughly 50,000 in all: Druze from the north, together with secular Ashkenazim from Tel Aviv and its suburbs. Everyone was very nice to each other but the groups didn’t really mix. It was pretty clear that most of the Druze protestors would have felt much more at home with the Likud-voters they usually associate with up north and in the IDF’s combat units. Another sign of inexperience was the fact that the rally was held soon after Shabbat ended, not giving the more religious protestors the opportunity to join.
A slap and a hug
It was also the most militaristic rally I’ve ever attended in Israel. Most of the speakers were either Druze or Jewish ex-officers of various ranks. Backstage there were enough retired generals to launch three military coups. Rafik Halabi, who emceed the rally, was constantly name-checking, in between the speeches, more senior officers and politicians who were attending, as if to add yet more respectability and legitimacy to the Druze’s unprecedented protest.
Their attempt to remain consensual extended even to a token representative of the Arab community, who was invited to speak towards the end. They could hardly have found a more consensual Israeli-Arab than lawyer Othman Abu-Ria: He made sure to criticize the “irresponsible” leaders of the Arab sector “whose actions helped cause the nation-state law,” and ended by promising that “our protests will always be against policies, not against the state and we will only protest under the flag of Israel.”
The decision to make the rally ostensibly non-political, however, dampened the tone of the event. Ex-Shin Bet Chief Yuval Diskin and former State Prosecutor Moshe Lador both made speeches which would have been very powerful on paper, but lacked the politician’s rhetorical skills needed to whip up a crowd. Occasionally, when Benjamin Netanyahu’s name was mentioned, there was scattered booing, which quickly died down. Attempts to get the crowd to chant “shivyon, shivyon” (equality), likewise failed. Some of them thought they were supposed to chant “bizayon, bizayon” (shame), and, anyway, it must wasn’t that kind of a crowd. “Most of the people here have never been to a protest in their lives,” said my Druze friend, a civil servant who can’t be named as being at a protest. He also gave me the best explanation of what was happening there on the square.
“On the one hand, we’re all here to be hugged by the Israeli-Jewish consensus. We need that hug right now, after the slap in the face of the nation-state law. But the Jews need us as well right now. They need us, the most patriotic, military-serving minority in Israel, to give them legitimacy to protest against the nation-state law. To help them be patriotic while doing it as well.”
Ultimately that will be the test of this rally, in the days and weeks to come. Did the combination of Israeli Jews opposing the nation-state law, because of its non-democratic nature, and the Druze-Israelis opposing the law, because they’re not Jewish, give a veneer of patriotism and Zionism to the opposition to the law? Did it do enough to counter the incitement and divisive narrative that Netanyahu has been pushing since the law passed two and a half weeks ago?
As the rally drew to a close and Jews looked sheepishly at Druze, wondering how they can proudly sing the words of the national anthem about “a Jewish soul yearning.” For a moment, at least, they felt they could be a patriotic opposition in a democracy, and not just a Jewish state.