Equality for all of Israel’s citizens

Today’s battle within Israel is whether to reinforce an exclusionary nationalism, a zero-sum game, or whether to repair and rebuild an Israel that is greater than the sum of all its communities.

Druze men protest outside the Hafia District Court, carrying both the Druze and the Israeli flags. Photo by Flash90.
Druze men protest outside the Hafia District Court, carrying both the Druze and the Israeli flags. Photo by Flash90.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Yechiel Eckstein

Since moving to Israel nearly two decades ago, I have come to profoundly appreciate the fact that the modern Jewish homeland consists of a rich mosaic of dozens of ethnic groups, multiple religions and immigrants from scores of countries—much like the United States in some ways. Though Israel is predominantly Jewish, it makes room for people from all the nations of the world.

But my experiences with Israel as both a Jewish and a multicultural nation have been decidedly mixed. I know that intimately through the work of the charitable organization I founded in 1983, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. It’s dedicated not only to aiding vulnerable Israeli Jews like aging Holocaust survivors and new immigrants, but also to strengthening Israel’s minority populations, including Arab Christians, Muslims and Druze—part of our global mission is to build bridges between Christians and Jews for Israel.

That’s why I believe the tearing apart of Israeli society around Israel’s new Basic Law could have been prevented if any of the proposals for adding a few words stressing equality for all citizens had been added to the bill before it passed.

We heard that message loud and clear last week when we met with 100 young Druze Israelis. We were originally gathering in Israel’s Galilee to award academic scholarships to these young graduates of the Israel Defense Forces as part of our ongoing efforts to fill economic gaps that Druze face. But after the Basic Law passed, its author, Knesset member Avi Dichter, agreed to join us to engage these young Druze in dialogue about the controversial legislation. Yet the meeting brought a series of anguished, raw exchanges and protests that generated headlines. In its wake, thousands of Druze marched to protest the new law.

Ironically, some months earlier, Druze leaders awarded me, as head of the Fellowship, with a special award of appreciation—the first time a rabbi had so been honored—for our mission to help Druze integrate further into Israeli society. That goal stems from our belief that Israel’s social health and security will be reinforced and strengthened when all of its constituent communities—from Arab Christians to Bedouin Arabs to the Druze—feel a powerful pull of belonging to Israel, when they feel committed to building Israeli society and, most importantly, when they are able to fully contribute to Israel’s growth, and ultimately benefit from it.

It’s a dream that Israel’s founders envisioned in the Declaration of Independence and constitutional laws. In fact, since Israel’s founding in 1948, the Druze community has been held up as a model of what is possible when it comes to Israel’s minorities—a mutually beneficial relationship based on equality and respect. Druze serve in the army, heroically and in great numbers, and their loyalty to the Jewish state runs deep.

Yet now that model of coexistence and multiculturalism is being threatened. The new law has ripped open a rift that must be healed. Druze are stunned, embarrassed and distressed that their status as full Israelis is being pulled apart. We cannot let this happen.

We call on Israel’s political leaders to either amend the bill by adding language stressing the equality of all Israeli citizens or by voting to declare the Declaration of Independence, which stresses equality for all of Israel’s citizens, as a new law.

But those would just be first steps. Israel’s government must take concrete action to bring its minority communities, including Druze, into the mainstream. That means making a greater investment in schools and in local infrastructure, and making a concerted effort to stop discriminatory practices that prevent Druze and minorities from building new housing and other construction.

Helping minorities in Israel will not undermine the momentous and historical connection of the Jewish people to their homeland. But with faith and confidence in the justice of our path and our strength, and from the foundation upon which the state was built, we must be open and generous to those who live here with us.

Today’s battle within Israel is whether to reinforce an exclusionary nationalism, a zero-sum game, or whether to repair and rebuild an Israel that is greater than the sum of all its communities. Making Israeli Christians, Druze and Jews stronger makes us all a better and stronger society for future generations to come – truly a light unto the nations.

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein founded the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (The Fellowship) in 1983 and has devoted his life to building bridges of understanding and cooperation between Christians and Jews, and broad support for the State of Israel. The Fellowship, one of the top 400 nonprofits in America (“The Chronicle of Philanthropy”), raises more than $140 million annually from its 1.6 million Christian donors, making it the largest Christian-supported humanitarian agency helping Israel and the Jewish people around the world.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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