Thousands of protesters rallied in Tel Aviv on Saturday against Israel’s new law declaring it the nation-state of the Jewish people, legislation that has angered the country’s Arab minority and drawn criticism abroad.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has defended the law, which says only Jews have the right of self-determination in the country and downgrades Arabic from an official language, saying it is necessary in order to fend off Palestinian challenges to Jewish self-determination.
The protesters, mostly Israeli Arabs, waved Palestinian flags and held up signs that read ‘equality’ in Arabic and Hebrew.
“The law legitimizes racism,” said Laila al-Sana, 19, from a Bedouin village in Israel’s southern Negev desert. “It’s very important to show we are here, to resist,” she said.
Israel’s Arab population comprises mainly descendants of the Palestinians who remained on their land after the 1948 war at the time of the creation of the modern state of Israel. Hundreds of thousands were forced to leave their homes or fled.
Many of Israel’s Arab citizens also identify as Palestinian. They make up about a fifth of the state’s 9 million people. Israeli law grants them full equal rights, but many say they face discrimination and are treated as second-class citizens.
“When I heard about the law I felt I should defend my hometown, our land, the land of my ancestors,” said 68-year-old Sheikha Dabbah at the rally.
Largely declarative, the law was enacted just after the 70th anniversary of the birth of the state of Israel.
It stipulates that “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it”. It also downgrades Arabic from an official language alongside Hebrew to a “special status.”
“I feel ashamed that after 70 years I have to accentuate my nationalism instead of being generous toward all those who live here,” said Gila Zamir, 58, a Jewish Israeli from the Arab-Jewish city Haifa.
Netanyahu posted on his Twitter page a video from the demonstration of a few protesters waving the Palestinian flag and chanting: “With spirit, with blood we shall redeem you, Palestine” and wrote: “There is no better evidence of the nation-law’s necessity.” Separate TV footage showed a few Israeli flags being waved.