Israeli Arabs' Show of Force Against Nation-state Law Highlights Their Enduring Isolation

Like the Druze, tens of thousands came to protest in Tel Aviv, but the Jewish reaction was markedly different

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Israeli Arabs and their supporters take part in a rally to protest against Jewish nation-state law in Rabin square in Tel Aviv, Israel  August 11, 2018.
Israeli Arabs and their supporters take part in a rally to protest against Jewish nation-state law in Rabin square in Tel Aviv, Israel August 11, 2018.Credit: \ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

In his 1992 book “Sleeping on a Wire,” which recounts his conversations with Israeli Arabs, author David Grossman reported on a dream harbored by former Israeli parliamentarian and current spy-in-exile Azmi Bishara. The founder of the Arab nationalist Balad movement wanted to see “a black mass in Tel Aviv.”  In his typically arrogant vision, Bishara saw himself “marching 50,000 Arabs in Tel Aviv, just as Martin Luther King marched 50,000 blacks in Washington, D.C.”

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Even if slightly less than 50,000 Arabs showed up, and though the analogy to African-Americans may seem spurious, Bishara’s dream came true on Saturday night. Israel’s controversial nation-state law spurred tens of thousands of Arabs, to borrow Benjamin Netanyahu’s infamous words, to descend in buses and in droves on Rabin Square in Tel Aviv and to march eastwards to Tel Aviv Museum. Many Jews came to support them, but far less than the number that showed up last week at the demonstration by the Druze.

The comparisons to the Druze protest are, of course, inevitable. Both protests occurred at the same place, same time and for the same reasons. The analogies provide a study in contrasts that highlights the uniqueness of the Israeli Arab predicament.

Israeli media built up the Druze protest in advance, but more or less ignored the demonstration of the far larger Israeli Arab community until it actually took place. Jewish public opinion embraced the Druze but viewed the Arab protest with suspicion and apprehension. Even those Jews who showed up seemed anxious: Many of them nervously asked for translations of the placards and speeches in Arabic, suspecting extreme messages that they could not endorse.

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With few notable exceptions, the Arab demonstration did not draw top former security officials and army officers, did not attract most of the mainstream opposition leaders, did not merit special lighting with the colors of the Palestinian flag on the Tel Aviv Municipality building, which promoted an upcoming summer concert instead.  Even the police charged with maintaining order looked different: With the Druze, they were relaxed, smiling, few and far between. For the Arabs, the police came out in force, fortified by Border Police, looking grim and on alert.

For the Arabs, emotions are more charged.  Their wounds are graver and their scars deeper: They’re not the product of this or that law, and won’t heal quickly or easily. The situation of Israeli Arabs has improved immensely since the first 17 years of the state, when many of them lived under strict martial law, but despite their steady climb, they are still the last in line and the mountaintop seems as far away as ever. Unlike the Druze, Israeli Jews don’t view Arabs as “blood brothers.” Despite being caught for decades between an Israeli rock and a Palestinian hard place, notwithstanding the remarkable restraint they’ve shown relative to their predicament, for many, if not most, Israeli Jews, the Arab minority remains a fifth column in waiting.

The Arabs, as Golda Meir once said of Israeli Black Panther activists, aren’t as “nice” as the Druze. They don’t brandish their service in the Israeli army, which they mostly avoid, they can’t point to their sacrifices for Israel’s security, didn’t wave Israeli flags and certainly don’t identify with Hatikvah’s “Jewish soul” sufficiently to belt out the Israeli national anthem, like the Druze. Equality, they claim, is a basic right, not something one has to pay for.

There were plenty of posters and placards endorsing Jewish-Arab solidarity and promoting a full and free democracy, but unlike the Druze, the Arabs did not shy away from stark political and sometimes nationalistic slogans such as “Bibi go home” and “Apartheid state.” A group of young girls from the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm waved Palestinian flags but encountered sharp protests from Jewish demonstrators. Netanyahu, naturally, was quick to pounce on the manifestations of Palestinian nationalism to sow more division and to justify the passage of the nation-state law.

Unlike the Druze, the Israeli Arab opposition to the nation-state law is total. It’s not limited to the fact that the word “equality” is absent from the law or to the demotion of Arabic from “official language” to one with “special status.” Israeli Arabs reject the notion of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. This was the unequivocal assertion of Muhammad Tatour from Nazareth, who came to the demonstration with his wife Samar and brought along their two daughters, Haya, 9, and Joann, 6, “so they could see it.” Samar, however, shyly demurred from her husband’s stance, reflecting divisions in their community as a whole: The protest is about complete equality between Jews and Arabs in our shared land, she said, and that’s it.

Israeli Arabs and their supporters take part in a rally to protest against Jewish nation-state law in Rabin square in Tel Aviv, Israel August 11, 2018.Credit: \ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

The common denominator between the two demonstrations is the clash they engendered between old established leaderships, which are happy to stick to the old status quo, and a younger guard that seeks a new Israeli deal. Druze leaders were willing to strike their own bargain, to maintain their preferred status in Israeli society and to accept what Arab Member of Knesset Ahmad Tibi described on Saturday as “mukhtars’ bribes,” which is equivalent, more or less, to bribing Native American chiefs with trinkets. The Arab leadership also feels more comfortable with a rigid ideology that views a demonstration for equal rights as implicit normalization and recognition of the Jewish state. According to a report by Jack Khoury in Haaretz, their voters pushed them to organize Saturday night’s protest, just like their Druze counterparts.

Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List alliance of Arab parties, was careful to phrase the goal of the protest carefully: We are seeking “deep equality,” he told Haaretz, “that recognizes our personal as well as national rights.” Tibi was blunter: Our ideological opposition to Israel as a Jewish state is well known –but that’s not what the demonstration was really about. The nation-state law “points the way to apartheid,” he asserts. It has an element of “Jewish supremacy” and “the creation of two separate classes of citizens, one that enjoys full rights and one that doesn’t – and even in the second group there is an effort to create different categories.”

Tibi rejects the differentiation made by supporters of the nationality law between collective rights, which Jews enjoy, and individual rights, which are given to all others. Individual rights, including cultural and political, are derived from belonging to a collective, such as the large Arab minority in Israel, Tibi says. In a Friday op-ed in Haaretz, Professor Shlomo Avineri expressed the same position: “One cannot sever individual citizens’ rights,” he wrote, “from their consciousness about their identity, culture, tradition, language, religion and historical memory.”

The Arabs are protesting efforts to downgrade their status, Tibi says, against a backdrop of 70 years of official discrimination. This is an effort to assail what Tibi terms “indigenous citizens” and to tell them: You are tolerated and you should make do with the new roads and health clinics that we build for you from time to time. Tibi notes, however, that the new law has made it much easier for Israeli Arab politicians to convince foreigners of their plight. “Maybe we should thank Netanyahu,” he adds drily.

A protester holds up a version of the Israeli flag that uses the colors of the Palestinian flag in Tel Aviv on August 11, 2018. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Tibi claims that it was possible to get the law approved without taking Arabic down a peg or two. The ultra-Orthodox politicians had agreed to nix the clause demoting Arabic. Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu was also inclined to agree, but the matter was never put to a vote. Tibi says Tourism Minister Yariv Levin told him that the obstacle was Netanyahu, who insisted on the change. Tibi confronted Netanyahu in the Knesset cafeteria. His reply, according to Tibi, was that he supports expanding the study of Arabic in Israeli schools, but “someone” is blocking his efforts. An incredulous Tibi asked the prime minister: “Are you seriously sending me to [Education Minister] Naftali Bennett?”

Tibi cites another government minister as explaining that Netanyahu fears the creation of an Israeli version of the “Canadian model,” in which both English and French are official languages and all rules, regulations, posters and speeches must be rendered in both. Canada and its prime minister, Justin Trudeau, have somehow gravitated in recent months to becoming a reviled symbol of enlightened liberalism: Donald Trump torments them, Saudi Arabia bristled at them for standing up for women’s rights activists and now, as it turns out, Canada and Trudeau are Netanyahu’s nightmare as well.

The third stanza of the French version of the Canadian national anthem “O Canada”, however, contains the suspiciously supremacist line “among the foreign races, our guide is the law.” For Tibi and Israeli Arabs, as well as for many Jewish Israelis, the law is no longer a solution. Rather, it has become the problem. The law sparked an unprecedented mass demonstration of Israeli Arabs in the heart of Tel Aviv, known as the first Hebrew city, but it also exposed the lingering duality of the Palestinian community, as it define itself. Their show of force also demonstrated their isolation. Unlike the Druze, at the end of the evening the Arabs could sense, as always, that they are entirely on their own. 

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