JERUSALEM – Israel's military chief is pleading to keep politics out of the army amid rising protests by the Druze minority against a recently passed law that enshrines the state's Jewish character and which critics say undermines its democratic values.
Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot has called on "all commanders and soldiers to keep controversial political issues" out of the military. In a statement Wednesday, he reaffirmed "our shared mission and camaraderie" with the Druze, an Arabic-speaking minority that serves in the military.
Like other minorities, the Druze have been outraged by the law, which they say renders them second-class citizens. Two Druze officers recently said they would stop serving in response to it, sparking fears of widespread insubordination.
The Druze, who follow an offshoot of Shiite Islam, have managed to survive in a turbulent region by showing allegiance to their country of residence — sometimes at the cost of fighting other Druze on the battlefield. In Israel, they have been fiercely loyal to the state and have risen to high office in the military and politics.
Israel's 1948 declaration of independence defined it as a Jewish and democratic state. The government says the new law merely enshrines the country's existing character, but critics say it undermines the constitution's commitment to equality. Arab citizens, who make up 20 percent of the population, say the law further marginalizes them.
Unlike most of the Arab population, which largely identifies with the Palestinians, the Druze see themselves as patriotic Israelis who have shed blood in the country's defense. Military figures often invoke the "alliance of blood" between Jews and Druze.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Cabinet ministers have met with the top Druze leadership, saying they understand and respect their concerns and will try to find a compromise.
Israeli Druze leaders say their alliance with Jews dates back long before they helped them win independence in 1948. The Druze revere Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, whose tomb in northern Israel is one of their most sacred sites. Israel's 130,000 Druze live mostly in the north of the country.
In a sign of solidarity, thousands of Israelis, including several retired high-ranking military officials, plan to attend a mass protest held by the Druze in Tel Aviv on Saturday.
"We will prove to the people of Israel and the government of Israel that this is a bad law, bad for all of us, and it needs to be annulled," Amal Assad, a retired general and one of the protest's organizers told Israel's Army Radio. "But the army should stay out of this argument."
Earlier this week, a Druze officer was suspended for a Facebook post in which he said he did not want to continue serving and predicted that hundreds of others would do the same.
A second officer, Lt. Shadi Zidan, voiced his pain about the new law.
"Today I refused for the first time in my service to salute the flag, I refused for the first time to sing the national anthem," he wrote on Facebook. "I'm a citizen like everyone else, give my all and more to the country, and in the end I'm a second-class citizen? So, no thanks. I don't intend to be part of that."