Analysis

Protests Against Nation-state Law Highlight Sad Truth About Israeli Left

Holding two demonstrations is a de facto acceptance of the racist hierarchy that Netanyahu has imposed on Israel: Jews at the top, then the Druze, Arabs at the bottom

Israeli Arabs hold a Palestinian flag during a protest against the nation-state law, Tel Aviv, Israel, August 11, 2018.
Ariel Schalit,AP

Essentially, two demonstrations against the same issue from the same side of the debate took place on two consecutive Saturday nights in the same place in Tel Aviv. In both demonstrations, a large number of non-Jewish Israelis protested the nation-state law, which has effectively relegated them to second-class citizens. And in both demonstrations, a large number of Jewish Israelis rallied alongside the protesters, standing with them in solidarity.

But it was unthinkable for the two demonstrations to take place together, at the same time and place. The August 4 demonstration was organized by Israel's Druze community and endorsed by the center-left parties Zionist Union (Labor) and Yesh Atid, and the left-wing party Meretz. The August 11 demonstration was led by the Israeli Arab community and endorsed by the Joint List, Israel's sole Arab party. A smattering of Meretz and Labor members attended the second demonstration as well, but it was clear that they were doing so in an individual capacity. 

>> Basic Law or basically a disaster? Israel’s nation-state law controversy explained

Holding the two demonstrations separately was bad for a number of reasons: It was a seemingly pointless division of the opposition to a racist law between the main communities it impacts and the Jewish Israelis who share in their outrage; it represented a de facto acceptance of the racist hierarchy the Netanyahu government has foisted on Israel's various communities – Jews at the top, then the Druze, then the Arabs – and it detached the values of service and patriotism, which were emphasized in the Druze rally, from those of equality and citizenship that were at the fore of the Arab protest. 

Protestors chanted “equality, equality” at both rallies. But the ranks of former generals, stories of a “bond of blood” between Druze and Jews and the singing of Israel's national anthem, Hatikvah, at the end of the first protest simply would not have fit in the rally seven days later. Just as the original instruction of the second rally's organizers to refrain from bringing and waving Israeli flags would have been totally out of place a week earlier.

Not that the instruction was fully adhered to. A few of the participants did turn up with Israeli flags Saturday, while others – who received most of the media’s attention – arrived with Palestinian flags and sang Palestinian national songs of “spirit and blood” and “a million shahids (martyrs) marching to Jerusalem.” 

Druze spiritual leader Sheik Mowafaq Tafik participates in a rally against nation-state law, Tel Aviv, Israel, August 4, 2018.
Sebastian Scheiner,AP

Although the leaders of the center-left parties had opposed the nation-state law, they knew exactly why not to turn up. The last thing they wanted was to play into Likud’s hands and give Netanyahu’s propaganda machine more ammunition. But did it really make any difference? It’s not like they were going to get patriotic points from the right wing anyway. 

>> Analysis: Arabs protesting in the heart of Israel sends clear message: We're here to stay

Avi Gabbay (Labor), Tamar Zandberg (Meretz), Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) and Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) all missed an opportunity to send out a different message as one big unified opposition representing Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens. But how realistic is it to expect the leaders of the so-called Zionist center-left to grasp such an opportunity? 

If a left-wing leadership is defined by preparedness to make major concessions for peace, offering true equality to Israel’s Arab citizens, and a willingness to exhaust every possible diplomatic alternative before choosing the military option, all of Israel's so-called leftist prime ministers – with perhaps the brief exception of Moshe Sharett in the mid-1950s – have been security hawks.

Who was a leftist? David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol, who launched major wars in 1956 and 1967 and held the Arab population under martial law for nearly two decades? Golda Meir, who turned down former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s first diplomatic overtures? Yitzhak Rabin, who agreed to shake late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s hand and give him limited autonomy in Gaza and the West Bank, but refused to countenance a Palestinian state? Ehud Barak, under whose government 13 Israeli Arab civilians were shot dead during riots in November 2000?

And it’s not just the so-called leftist governments who have always kept the Arabs outside their coalitions – it’s the Arab community's political leadership as well. Off the record (and sometimes on record as well), the leaders of Israel’s main Arab parties admit they could not be part of a coalition led by Labor. “Being in the coalition would mean taking responsibility for every policy, for everything the IDF does,” one senior Israeli Arab leader told me recently. “That’s unthinkable in the foreseeable future. For now, we have to represent both our community’s needs – our struggle for recognition as a national minority – and the interests of our Palestinians brothers under occupation. We could never do that from within the coalition.”

>> Analysis: Israeli Arabs' show of force against nation-state law highlights their enduring isolation

The sad truth is that in any of the political climates of the last seven decades, neither side have been willing to make the necessary sacrifices and take responsibility for a true partnership in Israel’s future. And that has yet to change. It isn’t because of a small group of youngsters waving Palestinian flags – it’s political expediency. Two political groupings that can’t contemplate sitting in the same coalition won’t be seen together in the square either.  

In the last three decades, Labor has won power only twice – in 1992 and 1999. Each time it needed Arab votes to deny the right-wing and religious parties a majority. But once victory was achieved, neither center-leftists nor Arabs thought for a moment that a coalition was possible. Another Likud victory in the upcoming election is not a foregone conclusion. If the center-left can pry 100,000 votes (the equivalent of four Knesset seats) away from the right-wing religious bloc, Netanyahu won’t have his coalition. It’s a difficult but far from impossible task. But to do so, the center-leftist leaders must be convinced that they cannot be “tainted” by being too close to the Arabs, and the opposition must continue working on two separate fronts.