TEL AVIV (JTA) — Tens of thousands of Israeli Arabs, some waving Palestinian flags, gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Saturday evening to protest the recent passage of Israel’s nation-state bill enshrining the state’s Jewish character.
At a protest organized by the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, an umbrella group representing Israeli-Arab civil society organizations, speakers railed against what they described as a law that formalized a racial hierarchy among Israeli citizens in which Arabs enjoyed a diminished legal status compared to Jews.
Arabic, previously defined as an official language, is designated under the law has having “special status.”
Defenders of the law counter that it does not undercut guarantees of equal status for all citizens enshrined in Israel’s Basic Laws, the functional equivalent of a constitution.
Some protesters waved Palestinian flags, while others carried signs protesting “apartheid” and sang chants describing the law as fascist. The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee’s chairman, Mohammad Barakeh, called the green, red, black and white banners as “flag[s] of a proud nation” and declared that there would be another Nakba, or catastrophe, the Palestinians’ term for the 1948 Israeli War of Independence.
Barakeh told The Times of Israel that while he had “asked the public not to bring [Palestinian] flags,” he “can’t control what people do.”
While many protesters declared that “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies,” others affiliated with the Arab Balad party were reported to have chanted “with spirit and blood we will free Palestine.”
“Zionism has no meaning if it does not intend to create a society that strives for peace,” Hebrew University professor Eva Illouz, a Moroccan Jew, told the crowd, The Jerusalem Post reported. “Today is a historical moment because Jews and Arabs together are stating that they are protesting together for equality.”
Knesset member Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, told the Israeli news site Ynet that the protesters had a “democratic and ethical message” and that a “democratic state must be a state for all its citizens.”
Jewish politicians across the political spectrum, including opponents of the bill, expressed opposition to the use of Palestinian flags.
“I can’t go to a protest where they are calling for the ‘right of return,’” said Labor chair Avi Gabbay.
Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, likewise questioned the flags, asking on Twitter what would happen “to those who would try to march in the center of Ramallah with Israeli flags.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held up the flags as an example of why the law was needed in the first place.
Speaking at the weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday morning, Netanyahu said that “yesterday we saw PLO flags in the heart of Tel Aviv. We heard the calls: ‘With blood and fire we will redeem Palestine.’ Many of the demonstrators want to abrogate the Law of Return, cancel the national anthem, fold up our flag and cancel Israel as the national state of the Jewish people and turn it – as their spokespersons said – into an Israeli-Palestinian state, and others say: A state of all its citizens.
“It is for precisely this that we passed the nation-state law. We are proud of our state, our flag and our national anthem. Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. The individual rights of its citizens are anchored very well in the basic laws and other laws. Now it is clearer than ever that the nation-state law is also necessary.”
Senior representatives of Israel’s Druze minority also panned the flags, Ynet reported.
“We are against the waving of the Palestinian flag. I think that it’s unnecessary,” said former Druze Knesset member Shachiv Shnaan. “If you protest because you want equality in your country, why wave flags of another state? But it isn’t anything new that Arab Israelis have a continued identity problem. They are torn between the national Palestinian identity and their real lives in Israel in partnership with the state.”
More than 50,000 Druze and their supporters gathered in Tel Aviv last weekend for a protest against the law. Many members of the Druze community — whose members, like Jews, serve in the Israeli army and security forces — felt betrayed by the law, which they said fails to give them equality despite their loyalty to the state.