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Thousands Of Israelis Protest Controversial Jewish Nation-State Law


Thousands of Israelis protested in Tel Aviv this evening over what they see as changes in the nature of the country's democracy.



GONYEA: The chant there is equality, equality - in Hebrew. The rally was led by members of the Druze religious minority. They're angry about a new law that defines Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Besides the Druze, the much larger Muslim minority in Israel also sees that new law as discriminatory. NPR's Daniel Estrin was at today's protest. Hi, Daniel.


GONYEA: So what was the scene there?

ESTRIN: Well, I'm sitting just outside the main square in Tel Aviv, where there were thousands of people. They were waving this colorful striped flag of the Druze community, and they were also waving the Israeli flag that features the Jewish Star of David. This was an unprecedented protest of Israel's Druze minority against Israeli government policy. This is not a community that you usually see protesting in the streets against the Israeli government. And they're upset that this new nation state law that was passed last month calls for things like investing in Jewish communities and towns. It does not mention the word equality. It does not mention equality for all citizens. So that's what they were out protesting today. And it wasn't just Druzes, by the way. There were many Israeli Jewish supporters, some former senior Israeli defense officials, too.

GONYEA: Give us some basic background here. Who are the Druzes, and how many of them live in Israel?

ESTRIN: Yeah, they're a unique religion. The Druze religion is an offshoot of Islam. They're ethnic Arabs, but they're not Muslim. There are about 20,000 of them who are citizens of Israel. There are Druze who live in Lebanon and Syria as well. But in Israel, they're loyal - fiercely loyal to Israel. They're required to serve in the army unlike other Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel who are about 20 percent of the population. And there is this very, very good relationship between Israeli Jews and the Druze minority. People today, I met, said we're loyal citizens. We should get equality. One guy I met protesting - his name was Baha Salah. He's 28 years old. He served three years in the Israeli military. Here's what he said.

BAHA SALAH: I'm here for my family, my country. I want to take what all Israeli take. All we want is equality.

ESTRIN: And the spiritual leader of the Druze community said, you know, no one can teach us what is loyalty. Our cemeteries are filled with people, our men, who have died serving the Israeli army.

GONYEA: Do you expect the government to do anything to address the protesters' concerns?

ESTRIN: Well, yeah, Prime Minister Netanyahu is, you know, he's defending this law. He says minorities are equal in Israel. They continue to be even with this law. But he has met with Druzes' representatives. He even offered to pass new laws ensuring government support for Druze institutions and support for housing for them and the community representatives are still mulling that over. But the main representatives are not happy with that proposal, and they say they're demanding that this nation's state law be changed.

GONYEA: And what about concerns of the wider Arab community there? The new law affects them too, certainly.

ESTRIN: Yes, the law downgrades the status of Arabic as an official language. That is seen by Arab Muslims and Christians here as a message that they are second class citizens. But this is - really the whole debate about this law is about something much bigger, Don. It's - first of all, Israel doesn't have a constitution. So these fundamental questions about what Israel is is still a source of debate. Israel defines itself as both Jewish and democratic, and the debate here is how to balance those two. And we're seeing minorities, not just the Druze, but Arabs and Christians saying, we have a place here, too.

GONYEA: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv. Thanks, Daniel.

ESTRIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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