JERUSALEM — Israel’s Arab leaders filed a petition to the high court Tuesday against a controversial new nation-state law , adding to a deluge of opposition to the act that critics brand an undemocratic betrayal of minority communities.
The petition argued that by declaring Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people alone, the law excludes the rights of its Arab citizens, who make up around 20 percent of the population.
The law, which the petition described as “racist, colonialist and illegitimate,” was passed by Israel’s parliament last month. It emphasizes the Jewish nature of the state, promotes specifically Jewish settlement and elevates the status of Hebrew over Arabic.
Members of Israel’s nearly 150,000-strong Druze community and representatives of Israel’s Bedouins, both minorities known for their loyal service in the country’s military, have already lodged legal petitions to the court.
Over the weekend, Druze leaders led a protest that drew tens of thousands to Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, where a former head of the Mossad intelligence agency, a former Israel Defense Forces chief and the mayor of Tel Aviv were among those to speak in opposition to the law.
So far, at least two Druze military officers have quit the army, while an Arab lawmaker who said that the law “oppresses me and oppresses the population that sent me to the Knesset” resigned from parliament. Vocal opposition has also come from the international community and Jewish groups abroad.
The wave of criticism piles pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is already beset by corruption allegations. But the Israeli leader has remained unwavering in the face of the outpouring of opposition, arguing that the law is necessary for future generations and that the protection of minorities is enshrined in other legislation.
Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948 established it as a Jewish state but also stipulated equal rights for its minorities. Israeli political leaders, however, argued that the Jewish nature of the state needed to be enshrined in the Basic Laws, Israel’s de facto constitution.
One of the main criticisms by the legislation’s opponents is that it fails to mention the rights of minorities.
“It is no accident that this law doesn’t mention the word ‘equality’ once,” said Ayman Odeh, an Arab lawmaker who heads the Joint List, the Arab bloc in the Knesset that backed the petition. “For Netanyahu, we are second-class citizens, not equal members in a democracy that works for the benefit of all its citizens.”
Other than now in Israel, “there is no constitution in the world today containing a clause that determines that the state belongs to one ethnic group or that a given state is exclusive to a certain ethnic group,” said Tuesday’s petition, which was submitted by the Israeli human rights group Adalah and also signed by the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel and the National Committee of Arab Mayors.
The petition called on the Israeli Supreme Court to annul the law, arguing that it also violates the United Nations charter by denying the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. The law states that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
The petition also noted that Article 7 of the law, which describes Jewish settlement building as a “national value,” encourages discrimination by the state in the allocation of land, housing, budgets and zoning.
Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who has been pushing to curb the powers of Israel’s Supreme Court, has said that if the high court strikes down the law, the result would be an “earthquake” that would begin “a war between branches of government.”
Proponents of the law, including Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, have said that those attacking it have an anti-government agenda. They charge that opponents seek to stir division in the country and argue that nothing in the law hurts the Druze community.
The Druze, unlike most Arab Israelis, are subject to mandatory national service in Israel. The law has stirred calls for that to end.
“This morning when I woke up to return to my base, I asked myself why? Why do I need to serve the state?” Capt. Amir Jamal, one of the Druze officers who resigned, said Sunday in an open letter on his Facebook page to Netanyahu that has now been removed, the Jerusalem Post reported.
“This country that I, along with my two brothers, and my father, served with dedication, purpose and love of our homeland — in the end, what do we get, we are second-class citizens,” he wrote.
“After a lot of thought, I decided to leave the army and not continue serving the country, a country that has a government that takes and does not give back,” he wrote.