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Critics Say Israel's Nation State Law Discriminates Against Religious Minorities


Israel passed a law last month that continues to cause controversy. The Nation State law defines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Critics say this law discriminates against religious minorities like Muslims and Christians who make up about a fifth of the Israeli population. As NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Tel Aviv, this law is sparking protest from a religious group that's one of Israel's staunchest supporters.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The Druze religious minority in Israel held an unprecedented protest this weekend. Thousands gathered in Tel Aviv's main square chanting the Hebrew word for equality - shivayon (ph).


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Shivayon. Shivayon. Shivayon.

ESTRIN: The Druze are a religious group, an offshoot of Islam. They're ethnic Arabs. But unlike most other Arab citizens, they've committed to serving in the Israeli army. They get a lot of praise from Israeli leaders, and they're outspoken Israeli patriots, which is why it was unusual for the Israeli Druze community's religious leader, sheikh Moafaq Tarif, to say this at the protest.


MOAFAQ TARIF: (Through interpreter) Despite our unquestioned loyalty to the country, the country does not see us as equal.

ESTRIN: After impassioned debate, Israeli lawmakers narrowly passed the Nation State law last month. The law downgrades the Arabic language in Israel from official to special status and commits resources to Jewish settlement. Critics say that could lead to an unequal distribution of land and resources. Palestinian-Arab citizens have long complained of discrimination, but the Druze community's outcry is something new.

ANWAR SAEB: They put all the Jewish under this law and others out of this law.

ESTRIN: Anwar Saeb is one of the senior Druze reserve army officers leading the protest. He heads a company that produces drones for the Israeli military. He served in the army for 27 years and commanded an infantry unit.

SAEB: I was injured three times in Lebanon, in Gaza and in the West Bank - my hand, my chest and my ears.

ESTRIN: He's part of a Druze delegation that's been meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

SAEB: I told the prime minister that we are not guests here. We are the real citizens, and we do actually the whole commitments. And we need to get all the rights.

ESTRIN: Netanyahu defended the new Nation State law yesterday.



ESTRIN: He said the law does not infringe upon individual rights of citizens but does prevent collective national rights for non-Jews. He said the law would ensure Israel accepts Jewish immigrants while preventing Palestinian noncitizens from gaining citizenship. Israeli columnist Shmuel Rosner says many Israelis support the law, partly in reaction to international activists leading a boycott campaign against Israel.

SHMUEL ROSNER: A sense within Israel and among many Israelis that there is a growing tendency to delegitimize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, to somehow argue that even being a nation-state is in some way not legitimate. So many Israelis feel as if Israel is under siege, and they felt the need to make a statement.

ESTRIN: Netanyahu has tried to smooth things over with the Druze community. He's proposed laws to invest in the community and to guarantee benefits for religious minorities who serve in the military. But he has not agreed to a Druze demand to amend the Nation State law with language ensuring equality for all minorities. Druze representative Saeb is torn.

SAEB: Now the country going very, very extreme to the right. It's not good for this country. This is a democratic country. It's a great country. I want to still live in Israel. It's my country. I love this country. My son today is in the army.

ESTRIN: Druze protesters have found allies among some former top military and defense officials, including from the Mossad and Shin Bet intelligence agencies who came to this weekend's protest. The Jewish Federations of North America, a nonpartisan umbrella group of U.S. Jewish communities, offered rare criticism of Israeli policy. It says the Nation State law is, quote, "a step back for all minorities." Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.