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Arab Israelis split over campaign against Nationality Law

Following a three-week delay, the Arab-Israeli leadership this week joined the protest against the Nationality Law, appealing to the Supreme Court to overturn it and organizing a large demonstration.
Israelis from the Druze minority together with others take part in a rally to protest against Jewish nation-state law in Rabin square in Tel Aviv, Israel, August 4, 2018. REUTERS/Corinna Kern - RC1B986AEC80

Israel’s Knesset adopted July 19 the controversial Nationality Law, anchoring the Jewish character of the State of Israel. Now, Arab Israelis are divided over the nature of the protest they should mount against the law. Opinions range from exerting pressure on the legislature to amend the law by holding demonstrations and strikes and petitioning the Supreme Court to taking advantage of the bill to show up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government in front of the world.

Activists in the Arab-Jewish Hadash party told Al-Monitor that the Arab Knesset members and senior community figures such as mayors and members of the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel have “fallen asleep on the job.” Although the Arabs are not obliged to serve in the military — unlike the Jews — they pay taxes like other Israelis but get fewer services and budgets from the state, the activists argue. Some think the Arab communities should launch an indefinite general strike, demonstrate and block roads to display their civic power. This way, they would expose Israel’s shame to the world.

Indeed, Israel’s 21% Arab minority have largely been silent. Their low-key reaction — immediately after the law was approved — was drowned out by the protest of Israel’s Druze community, which was given extensive media coverage and supported by former and serving senior security officials. Mobilization for the public Druze protest stemmed from the fact that young Druze men serve in the army, whereas the Arabs supposedly do not do their share.

Now, after delaying for three weeks, the Arab sector’s leadership has joined the active public protest against the law. The Arab Joint List — an umbrella faction of four Arab-Israeli parties — the High Follow-Up Committee that represents Arab Israelis on a national level and the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel petitioned the Supreme Court on Aug. 7 against the Nationality Law. The petition follows similar appeals by Druze Knesset members, the left-wing Meretz party and Israeli Bedouins from northern and southern Israel. The head of the Joint List, Knesset member Ayman Odeh, has repeatedly dubbed the bill “the Jewish supremacy law” and has now declared on Twitter that Arab lawmakers were working to overturn it.

Up until now, the parties constituting the Joint List, especially Hadash and Balad, believed the best protest would be to censure the government. They thought passage of the law would help them explain Israel’s deep-seated discrimination against the Arab population, which they view as having been enshrined in the basic, constitutional-type law. However, the latest comments by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, combined with the Druze protest, tilted the scales in favor of shifting from condemnation to action.

In an interview this week on Israel Army Radio, Shaked said the nation’s top court had no authority to overturn basic laws, and threatened “a war between the branches of government” if the justices disqualify the Nationality Law. Shaked has sought in recent years to change the makeup of the Supreme Court and to appoint justices with views similar to hers, such as her nominee Alex Stein, a law professor. She said that while she does not believe a majority on the bench would rule against the law, she warned that if the High Court did take such a decision, “an earthquake” would ensue. There is no mistaking her biting remarks as anything but a real threat against the Supreme Court justices lest they dare override the Knesset.

“Contrary to what Shaked and her friends think, the Supreme Court is not some goodwill gesture granted to Arabs and leftists, it is part of what is known as a democracy,” Knesset member Odeh bit back.

Many among the Arab community disagree with the Supreme Court petition. They believe that any ruling it makes would in any case serve Netanyahu and other proponents of the law. If the justices decide they are not authorized to disqualify the law, the Arab petitioners will provide Netanyahu with the ratification he needs to disprove the critics’ contention that the Nationality Law sanctions apartheid. If the judges ban the law, the Arab struggle for equality could be sidelined by the “war” and “earthquake” that Shaked has threatened.

What’s more, the petition’s critics argue that the situation of Arab Israelis will not change even if the court overrides the law, because the Knesset has already proven beyond a doubt its attitude toward more than 20% of Israelis who are not Jewish.

At an Aug. 7 news conference convened in Tel Aviv by the High Follow-Up Committee, Knesset member Jamal Zahalka of the Balad party described the Arabs’ dilemma over whether to fight the law or use it as proof of Israel’s racial discrimination against them. “This law is evil, colonialist and racist,” he said, “but it has another side to it. Netanyahu has given us a tool to show the world how deep racism in Israel runs, and that's why we are circulating this document … appealing to the world and showing this founding document [of] apartheid, [of] racism.”

Members of the Joint List will meet early next month in Brussels with the European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. They intend to use these high-profile meetings to launch an international campaign against the law and to mobilize worldwide support with the backing of leading writers, poets and intellectuals.

The first test of their intentions will take place Aug. 11 at a demonstration organized by leaders of the High Follow-Up Committee and Joint Arab List lawmakers. Ahead of the event, organizers are handing out stickers among Arab communities that say “I am a participant.” However, members of the younger Arab-Israeli generation do not believe demonstrations will change the attitude of the establishment toward their group. Most do not hold out any hope that the last bastion of Israeli democracy — the Supreme Court — will defend them and shift the attitude toward them of Jewish society that is so deeply impacted by the “Lords of the Land” mentality.

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