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A former Israeli general in the spotlight: 'If I am not a Jew, then this is not my country?'

A former Israeli general in the spotlight: 'If I am not a Jew, then this is not my country?'
Retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Amal Asad participates in a rally against Israel's nation-state bill in Tel Aviv on Aug. 4, 2018. (Sebastian Scheiner / Associated Press)

Since Israel passed a law declaring that Jews have “a singular right to national self-determination” in the country, one man has become the symbol of all those who oppose it: Brig. Gen. Amal Asad.

Asad, 62, a businessman and father of four who retired from the Israeli army almost 20 years ago, is a member of Israel’s Druze minority, non-Muslim Arabic speakers who serve in the military and are known for their loyalty to the state. Passage of the nation-state law early in the morning of July 20 sparked upheaval in Israeli Druze society that spread, especially among soldiers, to Jewish peers. A rally Asad organized on Aug. 4 at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square drew more than 150,000 people, according to most accounts.

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The new measure, championed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, does not change the way Israeli law is applied. However, it calls Jewish settlement “a national value” and demotes Arabic from one of two official languages, along with Hebrew, to one with an unspecified “special status.” Asad said he finds those measures incompatible with his understanding of citizenship.

He spoke to The Times on Thursday. His remarks are edited for length and clarity.

How did you become the man who has brought Prime Minister Netanyahu to his knees?

I wouldn’t put it that way. But I know the man, and I follow what he does. I wrote him an open letter four years ago when the nation-state bill first passed a Cabinet vote.

What did you say?

I asked him if he thought that at that moment, we were formally still equal citizens or no longer. I asked, “What is the nation-state of the Jewish people? If I am not a Jew, then this is not my country?”

Did he answer you?

I received my answer in the form of this law.

You can’t run a country this way. This isn’t serious. You can’t pass a law that has constitutional standing and is intended to guide legislators into the future at 3 a.m., like a thief in the nighttime, and think only your fervent base will notice. The general feeling is that he can’t see 3 feet ahead. He’s become a man for whom power is everything. Look at the 2014 Gaza war. What has this government done to make sure it won’t happen again? Pass a nation-state law?

How long can Netanyahu keep telling citizens that everyone is against us? This entire maneuver was not done for the good of the nation. It was done for the good of his primaries.

General view shows thousands of demonstrators protesting against the "Jewish State Nation Law" on Aug. 4, 2018 in Tel Aviv.
General view shows thousands of demonstrators protesting against the "Jewish State Nation Law" on Aug. 4, 2018 in Tel Aviv. (Amir Levy / Getty Images)

Do you think Netanyahu’s scheme is working?

I think a majority of Israelis support canceling this law, or replacing it with another law, or changing it. [One poll showed that 45% of Israelis saw a need for the law, while 62% thought it should have included a reference to equality.]

But Netanyahu’s usual tactics are working: You should see the talk-backs I get to every post. Within five minutes, I have 400 hate-filled, menacing responses. It’s an online lynch mob.

You also see hatred on the streets. Where did it come from? The prime minister is dividing the people, trying to pit Israelis against Israelis, something that has never been the norm here.

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Notice that no one said a single word against Netanyahu at our rally. No one mentioned him. I refused. We are against nothing. We are only for. We are for a Jewish, democratic state with equality for its citizens, as stated in the Declaration of Independence.

In response to your movement, Netanyahu established the “Ministerial Committee on Druze, Circassian and Minority Community Members who Serve in the Security Forces Affairs” and offered Druze communities financial incentives.

This is not about money, as he will eventually grasp. This law cannot remain as it is. Absolutely no way. They can write another law, they can replace it, they can change it, they can grant the Declaration of Independence a constitutional status, but this law as it is, with no mention of equality or democracy, cannot remain. We will not agree. I will certainly not agree to this, that I could be in any way lesser than a Jew in the eyes of the law. At the same time, I do not want to be above Arabs or any other minority. A citizen is a citizen is a citizen, period.

How do you feel about service to the state?

An Israeli citizen has to be an equal among equals. You can serve in the army or study in a religious seminary. You do nothing with yourself. You can be a draft dodger, religious, atheist, whatever: Each and every one has to be first of all equal as a human being, as a citizen.

Beyond that, yes, I believe that all citizens must do something for this country in which they live. Build it. Serve it. National Service. Civil service. Military service. Security service. Anything, but everybody, at age 18, has to contribute in some way to this country, but must do it in the full knowledge that the country belongs to them — that they are giving back to themselves, their own families, their villages, their communities and their country.

Do you foresee a political future for yourself?

I have no interest in being a politician, a member of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) or a minister. I actually left the army in 1999 in order to join Israeli politics, the Center Party. I touched politics and immediately understood that it is not for me.

Following that experience I joined the Likud. I’ve been a member ever since.

You are a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party?

To this very day.

What’s next?

We are working on several levels. There will be more rallies. We will fill Rabin Square again. When Knesset members arrive after the summer recess, the entire people of Israel will be there. It is going to be a pilgrimage. Citizens will take over the Knesset, so the members know they cannot ignore us.

If this law remains, this government will fall, no matter what excuse they use to explain it. The next government will bring a different law. There is no question.

The next government of the state of Israel will enshrine our Declaration of Independence, written by David Ben-Gurion and serious people, as our basic national law.

Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent.

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