The impression I got from the reaction of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the extreme reactions of the Druze community to the Nation-State Law and of the gay community to the Surrogacy Law, both of which were approved just before the Knesset wrapped up for its summer recess, was that he was caught unprepared.
His instinctive reaction was to invite representatives of both communities for a “sincere” talk, but neither group seemed to see in the invitation more than an empty gesture – especially the Druze, who were told by Netanyahu that a cancellation of the law was out of the question, and he added insult to injury by promising them financial and other benefits as compensation.
Both protests, incidentally, have to do with statutory inequality – in the case of the Nation Law, of Israel’s non-Jewish minorities; and in the case of the Surrogacy Law, of homosexuals requiring the services of a surrogate mother in order to realize their right to parenthood.
In the case of the Druze, the reason Netanyahu was surprised probably has to do with the fact that the Druze closest to him – Communications Minister Ayoub Kara – is an indefatigable flatterer, who avoids confrontations with the leader, and who might not even have been aware of the fact that none of the Knesset’s other three Druze MKs (Hamad Amer from Yisrael Beytenu, Akram Hasson from Kulanu, and Salah Saad from the Zionist Union) were planning to support the Nation Law. Kara certainly did not warn Netanyahu about the negative feelings in the Druze community (there are around 140,000 Druze in Israel, of whom most of the men do full military service) regarding their rights as a minority being ignored in the law, and it apparently didn’t cross his mind that the three Druze MKs would actually join a petition to the High Court of Justice demanding that the Basic Law be rescinded.
As to the Surrogacy Law, it seems that Netanyahu’s main source of information with regard to the possible reaction of the homosexuals to their being excluded from the right to use the services of surrogate mothers (unlike lesbians, who are not excluded) was MK Amir Ohana from the Likud (himself a homosexual), who had been promised by Netanyahu that he would support a bill Ohana was planning to submit to correct the distortion and, unlike other members of the gay community, seemed willing to swallow the frog of the amendment to the Surrogacy Law being passed. Though we do not know the exact number of members of the gay, transgender and bisexual community in Israel, it is assumed that the percentage of those who are “out of the closet” is around 3.5% of the population – i.e., close to 300,000.
THE 1948 Declaration of Independence included the explicit mention of the word “equality”: “The State of Israel... shall exercise full social and political equality for all its citizens, irrespective of religion, race or gender.”
The Equal Rights for Women Law was passed in 1951; the Employment (Equality Opportunities) Law was passed in 1988; the Equal Pay (for men and women) law was passed in 1996; the Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law was passed in 1998; and the Prohibition of Discrimination in Products, Services and Entry into Places of Entertainment and Public Places Law was passed in 2000. However, when it comes to Basic Laws, the word “equality” seems to be taboo and is even absent from the two 1992 Basic Laws dealing with human rights: Basic Law Freedom of Occupation and Basic Law Human Dignity and Liberty.
Although in the proposals of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee regarding a Constitution by Broad Agreement in the 16th Knesset, on the issue of the basic principles on which the state is based, a balance was struck between the notion that Israel is the state of the Jewish nation and the rights of minorities, even there the word “equality” was left out. Then, during the debates on the Nation Law, which were spread over seven years, the word “equality” was deliberately left out, even though MK Bennie Begin (Likud) proposed a version that included the word “equality” in referring to Israel’s minorities, and kept speaking up in favor of its inclusion.
It is said that the word was left out in deference to the ultra-Orthodox parties, which, in addition to being opposed to Basic Laws on principle (they claim that no law other than the Halacha can have supreme status), are wary of wording in Basic Laws that may be interpreted by the High Court of Justice in a manner detrimental to the ultra-Orthodox, and are not ashamed to admit that they do not accept the principle of equality in connection with a wide scope of issues, including gender equality, the equality among the various streams in Judaism (they do not recognize any but the Orthodox stream), the equality in the duty to serve in the IDF, etc. The more extreme sections of the National Religious community have colluded with the ultra-Orthodox on this issue.
WHAT MAKES people like myself especially angry is that the ultra-Orthodox and extreme National Religious are not satisfied with keeping the word “equality” out of Basic Laws, but actively gnaw at the existing equal rights of others – especially women. Thus, in deference to the growing number of ultra-Orthodox students in academic institutions (a very welcome development in itself), female lecturers are excluded in classes attended by haredi men, in breach of the principle of equal opportunities in work, and all women who have access to where the men are studying are subject to draconian rules of “modesty.”
In the IDF, where female equality has made impressive advances in recent decades, many National Religious soldiers and officers make demands, regarding the units in which they serve, that seek to exclude women (especially as instructors or co-fighters) and humiliate them with ridiculous demands in the sphere of “modesty.”
But I am not naive. It is not just the ultra-Orthodox and extreme National Religious rabbis who are to be blamed for the shameful concealment of the principle of equality. For years there was a systematic discrimination against, and exclusion of, Mizrahim (Jews of Muslim-country origin) from positions of power and influence, of which there are still remnants, though I doubt one can find a member of the Ashkenazi elites who speaks out openly against the Mizrahim being given equal opportunities.
There is also a significant percentage of the Jewish population that does not believe that Arab citizens deserve equal rights, or that the Ethiopian Jews – who are black – are not inferior in some way.
One of the most disgusting phenomena in the current Knesset is the fact that the most outspoken Jewish MKs speaking against the Arabs, their membership in the Knesset and their democratic rights are MKs of Mizrahi origin – MKs Miki Zohar, Yaron Mazuz and Oren Hazan. The word “equality” seems to be totally absent from their vocabulary, unless one is referring to the Mizrahim themselves.
Given this reality, it would be nice to have a prime minister who is willing to place the principle of equality at the top of his agenda – not just in words but also in spirit and actions.