Tens of thousands of people including Jews and Arabs rallied in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv to protest the country’s controversial “Jewish state law”.
Passed last month, the divisive law officially affirms Israel’s Jewish character, but critics say it turns non-Jewish citizens of the country into second-class citizens, further marginalising some 1.8 million Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and other minorities.
The protesters marched through the streets of the city on Saturday night calling for the law’s cancellation.
“This is amazing. This is the first time I remember Jews and Palestinians fighting together for something. This is a really big moment for people that believe in democracy and equality,” an unidentified demonstrator told Al Jazeera.
A Jewish participant agreed, saying all citizens of Israel should be equal under the law.
“We, a lot of Israelis, believe that they [minorities] are entitled to be equal to us,” protester Dan Meiri said. “It is the Jewish state but the people that live here are entitled to be equal to us across the board in education, in the army, in the universities, in the parliament – all over.”
The measure, pushed through last month by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, declares the right to national self-determination is uniquely Jewish.
The law states that Hebrew is the official language of Israel, downgrading the status of Arabic. Previously, both Hebrew and Arabic were official languages.
The “nation-state bill” also establishes Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories as a “national value” that the state must encourage.
“This law is against us, against the Arabic language, against peace, against our future in this land. We are the real people of this land,” said demonstrator Omar Sultan.
For others, the protest was not only about this specific bill but the direction Israel is going in.
“We have anti-democratic moves taking place in many things – towards gays, towards women, towards secularism, and towards Palestinians. This is turning into a fascist regime,” a protester told Al Jazeera.
“It’s not yet there, but it’s going in a bad direction.”
Last week, thousands from the Druze minority protested against the law under the motto, “Equal rights for all citizens.”
The Druze are an Arabic-speaking group with their own distinct religious and cultural traditions. They make up two percent of Israel’s 8.8 million population, and are found mainly in the northern regions of Galilee and Carmel.
The Druze have had special status since the 1950s when they were drafted into the military, unlike Israel’s Muslim and Christian populations.
Netanyahu has repeatedly defended the contentious law passed on July 19.
“We will keep ensuring civil rights in Israel’s democracy but the majority also has rights and the majority decides,” he said a week before it passed.
“An absolute majority wants to ensure our state’s Jewish character for generations to come.”
Israel’s Palestinian population comprises mainly the descendants of those who remained on their land since 1948, the time of the establishment of the modern state of Israel.
The fledgeling state consolidated its control over Palestinian lands on the back of an ethnic cleansing campaign in which hundreds of thousands were forced to leave their homes.
Those who remained have full equal rights under the law, but face constant discrimination, including inferior services and unfair allocations for education, health and housing.