Tens of thousands of people, perhaps as many as 100,000, demonstrated in Tel Aviv on Saturday 4 August to protest against the new “Nation State Law”, which opens the door to legally-sanctioned racism against non-Jews.
The law relegates Arabic from the status of official language, and asserts that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people”. Israel’s Arab minority, which makes up around 20% of the population, has formal legal equality, but faces frequent discrimination, which many fear the new law will intensify.
The Tel Aviv demonstration was led by Israel’s Druze community, often referred to as Israel’s “model minority” for their frequent patriotism and loyal military service (Arabs are exempt from conscription into the Israeli Defence Forces), who feel betrayed and let down by the law.
The passage of the law has provoked widespread opposition, including from many Jewish community organisations internationally. The Israeli establishment is itself divided over the question: speakers at the rally included a former head of Mossad, the Israeli secret service, and attendees included many former senior military figures. Even the current Israeli president Reuven Rivlin issued what appeared to be a subtle objection to the law, when he promised to sign it in Arabic.
The mass rally came days after thousands also attended another protest, billed as “the world’s biggest Arabic lesson” in Tel Aviv, organised by a coalition of liberal and leftist organisations, including the cross-party “Standing Together” group, led by activists from left-wing parties such as Meretz and Hadash. One participant, a 16-year old Jewish student, told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz: “Personally, I feel you can’t have a democratic nation-state that doesn’t treat minorities as fully equal”.
Samah Salaime, an Arab activist who helped organise the event, said: “The law is symbolic, but this struggle is about building a shared country and a shared future in this land […]
“We are the binationalists, the bilinguists, we are the dream of the future […] we have room for the Palestinian next to the Jews, for the Arab and the Israeli, and for anyone who defines themself as part of this country […] We are proud and are well aware of the price we pay for joining together. We do not stand behind a destructive coalition in the Knesset that takes our money for its institutions, its settlements, and its messianism.”
Some Israeli leftists, such as Gush Shalom’s Uri Avnery, who calls the Nation State Law “semi-fascist”, situate it in the context of a wider lurch to the right, and against secularism.
Avnery writes: “[There is] a rigorous government policy of Judaization of everything.
“The present government has reached new heights. Active — even frantic — government actions try to Judaize education, culture, even sports. Orthodox Jews, a small minority in Israel, exert immense influence. Their votes in the Knesset [the Israeli parliament] are essential to the Netanyahu government. […]
“Jews are members of an ethnic-religious people, dispersed throughout the world and belonging to many nations, with a strong feeling of affinity with Israel. We, in this country, belong to the Israeli nation, whose Hebrew members are part of the Jewish people.
“It is crucial that we recognize this. It decides our outlook. Quite literally. Are we looking towards Jewish centres like New York, London, Paris and Berlin, or are we looking towards our neighbours, Damascus, Beirut, and Cairo? Are we part of a region inhabited by Arabs? Do we realise that making peace with these Arabs, and especially the Palestinians, is the main task of this generation?”
It is true, Netanyahu has made a conscious effort to align Israel with the growing ethno-nationalist far-right internationally, via close relations with Putin’s Russia, Trump’s USA, and Viktor Orban’s Hungary.
He is aligning the world’s only majority-Jewish state with governments led by, containing, or pandering to antisemites. Within his own government, figures like Avigdor Lieberman are virulent racists against the Palestinians, sometimes calling openly for ethnic cleansing.
Israel’s historic self-presentation as a progressive, cosmopolitan, liberal democracy — always undermined by its occupation of the Palestinians — is now also undermined by its own social policies. Shortly before passing the Nation State Law, Netanyahu’s government passed a bill preventing gay men from accessing state funds to have children via a surrogate mother.
Netanyahu, who previously pledged to support gay surrogacy, is widely seen to have caved in to the religious right, with which he now increasingly collaborates. This law also provoked mass demonstrations, with tens of thousands rallying in Tel Aviv on 22 July. On 2 August, 20,000 marched in the Jerusalem Pride parade, the highest number ever.
Writing in the Israeli socialist magazine Challenge, Yacov Ben-Efrat wrote that the demands of the LGBT movement “target the hearts and minds of Israeli society. They demand an egalitarian and democratic society when, in fact, their country favours the Jewish nation over the Arab nation, religious over secular.”
However, he highlighted that “like the massive social protest of 2011, the [22 July] protest opposes a discriminatory society while omitting to oppose the discriminatory state. The omission seems contrived, especially considering that the Surrogacy Law excluding gay men passed in the Knesset on the same night as two strongly nationalistic laws, one against [left-wing NGO] ‘Breaking the Silence’ and the other, called the Nation-State Law, prioritising Jewishness over democracy.
“On one fateful night, the fundamentalist right realized its darkest desires.”