ISFIYA, Israel — At a military cemetery lined by conifers on the wooded slopes of Israel’s Mount Carmel, Safwan Marich walks beside the graves of local soldiers killed in active service for Israel.
“Look at these people,” said the retired officer. “Why did they fight? For whom? For their nation?”
“Now,” he continued, “the government is saying: ‘No, you didn’t die for your nation. It’s not your nation.’ ”
Marich and the slain soldiers interred here are members of Israel’s minority Druze community, known for its fierce dedication to the Israeli state and service in the armed forces. Hundreds have paid the ultimate price for Israel, but now their sacrifices feel hollow, Marich said, because of Israel’s new nation-state law.
Passed in July, the law has stirred fierce debate across Israeli society over what it means to be a minority in Israel and highlighted fundamental questions about equality and democracy here.
The bill enshrines in constitutional law key elements of Israel’s declaration of independence, including the Jewish nature of the state and its anthem, flag and capital.
It describes Jewish settlement as a “national value” that should be promoted and consolidated, and it elevates the status of Hebrew over Arabic, making Hebrew the sole official language. Most troubling for Marich and other members of Israel’s minorities, largely Arabs who make up 20 percent of the population, is what is missing from the law — the assurance in the declaration of independence of equal rights for all Israel’s citizens regardless of race or creed.
Marich works for the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which has spoken out against the law and urged the government to adjust it.
Backers of the law, most prominently Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, argue that it was necessary to ensure the future of Israel as a Jewish nation — and not an Israeli-Palestinian one, given its large Arab minority.
Its critics, who include international Jewish groups, Arab Israelis and human rights advocates, argue that it is racist and damaging to Israeli democracy. A flurry of Supreme Court petitions have been lodged challenging it.
Some of the most passionate denunciations have come from the Druze, who are adherents of a cloistered sect that splintered from Islam in the 11th century. When Israel was created, the Arabic-speaking Druze entered what they describe as a “covenant of blood” with Jews, identifying with the struggles of another religious minority. At the request of their leader, Israel has recognized the Druze as an ethnic and religious group separate from the Arabs.
A population of just 150,000 people, the Druze wield disproportionate influence in the state, fielding ministers and officers in the upper echelons of the military. When Marich and other Druze officers organized a protest in Tel Aviv last month, they drew tens of thousands of Israelis, including many Jews who came out in solidarity. Former heads of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency and the Israel Defense Forces were speakers.
For the Druze, who thought they had proved their loyalty by serving in the military — first voluntarily and later under compulsory service — the law has been particularly wounding. Druze protest leaders, though, say they are in a unique position to push back against the law, while similar efforts by Arab Israelis could be dismissed as unpatriotic.
Arab politicians in Israel have said the nation-state law simply formalizes long-standing “apartheid” policies. Many identify as Palestinians, separated from their brethren when Israel was created, and have long complained of deep discrimination in education, housing and policing.
While the government has worked to reach a compromise with the Druze over their complaints, Netanyahu dismissed protests by tens of thousands of Arab Israelis last month. In a statement, he said that many demonstrators want to “cancel” Israel as the national state of the Jewish people and turn it into an “Israeli-Palestinian state” or a “state of all its citizens.”
Miri Regev, Israel’s culture minister, said she would refer the issue of Palestinian flags being flown at the Arab Israeli demonstration to the attorney general.
But Druze protests have been harder to brush off.
“When they passed this law, they didn’t think about the Druze,” said Kamal Mallak, sitting in the garden of his house in Isfiya, in the heart of the Druze community. “They were aiming for something bigger, and they drove over the Druze on the way.”
The multicolor, striped Druze flag fluttered over the house next door. It had been newly raised, he said, with the nation-state law prompting a resurgence in Druze pride in their own symbols.
“There is only one state for the Jewish people. I believe that they have a right to a country that keeps that definition,” said Mallak, 49, who is running for the local council. “But 100 percent, people should be equal.”
The law’s backers say it was necessary to prevent Israel from becoming what columnist Dror Eydar described in a recent op-ed in the Israel Hayom newspaper as a “bi-national” state.
“Everyone in Israel is equal before the law,” Eydar wrote. “But the nation-state law is different: it is part of a larger picture. That is why it addresses nothing other than the issue of nationality. On that issue there isn’t any equality; there is only room for one national self-determination in Israel: the self-determination of the Jewish people.”
Eugene Kontorovich, a law professor at the Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum, which backed the measure, said the new law does not diminish equality, which is enshrined in other parts of Israeli constitutional law.
“Unless it harms equality, then there’s nothing to talk about,” he said. “Critics even say it’s not about what’s in it, it’s about how it makes them feel.”
Mallak said that instead of creating divisions, Israel should embrace its minorities and make them feel like part of the state.
“We are struggling for our rights, but it’s something bigger. We are struggling for the face of the state of Israel, for everyone,” he said. “What makes the difference between Israel and its neighbors is this is supposed to be a democratic state, enlightened.”
Like other critics, he attributed the law to Netanyahu’s political calculations, saying the prime minister hopes to expand his right-wing support heading into national elections, which many observers expect to be called in the coming months.
In the wake of the furor over the law, Netanyahu has set up a committee to address issues such as housing and employment grievances for “minority members who serve in the security forces” and has proposed a separate law to recognize their contributions.
This initiative would not tackle problems of those in Israel’s larger Arab population, since they are not required to do mandatory service.
Druze protest leaders say they will accept nothing but a change in the law that ensures equal rights for minorities, whether or not they serve.
Yariv Said served for 25 years in the Israeli military, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel.
“I’m hurt. I’m offended,” he said as he stood by the grave of his father, who was killed in a military training accident in 1978. A few yards away was the grave of his great-grandfather, who died while fighting for the Jewish Haganah militia in 1938, a decade before Israel was created. “This shows that we built this state,” Said said.
The younger generation of Druze, who grew up thinking they were completely Israeli, has been particularly hurt by the law’s passage, he said. At least two Druze officers quit the army in protest but later rejoined.
“I’m worried about my children, this conflict of identity,” Said said. “It’s as if you live in a family together. You eat together, you play together, and then one day the head of the family says, ‘The Jews stay and you get out.’ ”