It is safe to say that the backlash to Israel’s nation-state law was not anticipated by its promoters and backers. Prime Minister Netanyahu, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and the bill’s sponsor, MK Avi Dichter, and others blithely dismissed the concerns raised during the debate over the law that it was exclusionary and eroded Israel’s democratic character – concerns raised not only by Palestinian citizens of Israel or Diaspora Jews but by President Ruvi Rivlin as well. However, they ran into a problem almost immediately after the law passed its final Knesset reading. Following vociferous protests by Israeli Druze that the law left them behind and disrespected their decades of service to the state, it took little time for the backpedaling to begin. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman held a meeting with Druze MKs from the coalition to talk about their concerns, Bennett tweeted a statement of his alleged after-the-fact realization that the nation-state law is offensive to Druze citizens, and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon claimed with a straight face that a law that was first introduced conceptually in 2011 and whose current iteration has been debated for months was “passed in haste.”
It is no accident that the statements of partial regret and chastened half-apologies came about as a result of a Druze outcry. The Druze are widely seen inside Israel as a model minority, and particularly in contrast to Palestinian citizens of Israel. Druze serve in the IDF, do not engage in anti-Zionist rhetoric, and in fact embrace their Israeli identity. The fact that the nation-state law set off the Druze should not have been surprising given that it takes a group that has historically viewed itself as part and parcel of Israeli society and places it into a lesser category, and the thanks that Israeli Jews feel for Druze resulting from their IDF service has driven the Jewish opposition to the nation-state law as well. A letter signed by former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and other former Golani Brigade commanders declared that they “embrace, support and share in the pain of our Druze, Bedouin, and Circassian brothers and sisters, as well as all the ethnic groups that serve in the various security forces and who have tied their fate to the [Jewish] people dwelling in Zion since the establishment of the state.” Similar letters were released by former Paratroopers Brigade commanders, including former chiefs of staff Moshe Ya’alon, Shaul Mofaz, and Benny Gantz, and by former Israel Police commanders.
While the support for Druze is heartening and demonstrates that many Israeli Jews at the upper echelons of Zionist institutions have not succumbed to the narrow parochialism that the nation-state law represents, it is itself concerning in a different way. The Druze protest movement and the support for it is predicated on the idea that Druze loyalty and service to the Jewish state should be rewarded in some way, either by amending the nation-state law, crafting a new Basic Law to cover Druze citizens specifically, or allocating funds for a package of special benefits to the Druze sector. Unfortunately, this approach not only fails to solve the problem, but strengthens the fundamental flaw at the heart of the nation-state law itself. Like the nation-state law, the opposition to it based on the exclusion of a loyal minority advances the notion that the state has special obligations to some citizens based on their ethnicity or worldview, rather than universal obligations to all of its citizens. The reason to oppose the nation-state law is not that it leaves out Druze; it is that it leaves out everyone who is not Jewish.
Creating a narrow legislative fix, whatever form it takes, that gives Druze citizens special status and acknowledges their contributions to the state would be to take the nation-state law and expand its parameters rather than address the underlying problem behind it. Is the clause of the law that declares the right to self-determination in Israel unique to the Jewish people objectionable because it casts all non-Jewish citizens as substandard, or is it objectionable because it excludes some Israelis who serve in the IDF? If the latter, then the opposition that focuses solely on Druze and other non-Jewish IDF veterans makes sense. But if it is the former – and that is where my objections to the nation-state law lie – then whether or not an individual or an entire sector performs national service is irrelevant. Democratic states must treat all of their citizens equally, full stop. If Israel wants to pass legislation that differentiates between different classes of citizens based on what they do rather than who they are, then it should do so; many Israelis who are rushing to defend Druze based on their service would probably be ok with putting them on a higher plane than Haredi Jews who do not join in the IDF or perform national service. But creating a hybrid system that privileges one set of people based on ethnic or religious heritage and then carves out space for other ethnicities or religions based on their perceived loyalty is no better than the concept behind the nation-state law in the first place. Using the treatment of Druze as the vehicle to attack the nation-state law is the wrong way to go about protesting it since it concedes the very principle animating it.
None of this is to denigrate Israeli Druze or the burden they have admirably assumed. There is a reason that the security establishment has risen to their defense in such an unbroken display of solidarity. Druze deserve all of the praise that is being heaped upon them, and that they now feel like castoffs who have been used by the Jewish majority should be cause for shame on the part of every Jewish citizen of Israel. But rectifying the nation-state law’s mistreatment of one group while preserving its mistreatment of the others is no solution. The problem with the nation-state law is not that it put Israeli Druze on an unequal footing with Israeli Jews; it is that it put every non-Jewish Israeli on an unequal footing with Israeli Jews.