Sunday, July 29, 2007

The 'right' to discriminate
A new bill in the Knesset seeks to perpetuate discrimination against Israel's Arab citizens.
Richard Silverstein, Cooment is free, Guardian

July 28, 2007

A fixture in the lives of all children who have ever attended Hebrew school is the blue Jewish National Fund (JNF) pushke (or charity box), into which parents and teachers encouraged us to throw our pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. They taught us to perform a mitzvah by giving tzedakah to support the building of the Jewish homeland. Thus, the Jewish National Fund was the Red Cross of Jewish life, a "mom and apple pie" charity doing nothing but good for our people.

How times change! Last week, the Israeli Knesset passed, on first reading, the Jewish National Fund bill which allows the JNF to refuse to lease land to Arab citizens. The JNF is a quasi-public charity established to raise funds to purchase land for Jewish settlement within Israel. In 1961, the Israeli government transferred 13% of Israeli land to the JNF. Included in this were one million dunams expropriated from Arab residents who fled Israel in 1948.

The government had sold the land to the JNF at bargain-basement prices in order to remain at arm's length from the tainted process. Historically, the JNF has maintained a ban against Arab use of its land. But the Israeli supreme court, in a landmark ruling, said that the JNF can no longer discriminate against the Arab population. The Court maintained that such a ban defies the norms of a democratic state and must be ended.

The Knesset bill, co-sponsored by a ruling party Kadima Knesset member, is an attempt to get around the court ruling. While it would allow the JNF to resume discriminating against Arabs, the other 80% of Israeli land administered by the ILA would continue to be governed by the supreme court ruling. On first reading, the bill passed 64-16, with only 10 Jewish MKs voting No. One of those voting Yes was Ami Ayalon, recent candidate for Labour party leader and partner with Sari Nusseibeh in a dialogue seeking Israeli-Palestinian peace.

This bill certainly does make for strange bedfellows. Opposition within the Diaspora has been slow to develop. The only US Jewish group to protest publicly was Ameinu, which wrote a letter to Zeev Elkin, the Kadima bill sponsor. The Union for Reform Judaism is also preparing a letter expressing its opposition. MeretzUSA is circulating an online petition as is a group of Jewish bloggers - including this author, Dan Fleshler (Realistic Dove) and Jerry Haber (Magnes Zionist) - who have created an online campaign against the bill.

The other major Jewish groups like the Anti Defamation League and American Jewish Committee have sat on their hands so far. First, they cannot rock the boat against a fellow American Jewish group (the JNF); second, their rather conservative membership sees little wrong with discrimination in favour of Israeli Jews.

Haaretz excoriated the legislative effort in an editorial, A Racist Jewish State:

This bill reflects an abasement of the Zionist enterprise to lows never imagined in the Declaration of Independence. Even though the Jewish National Fund purchased the lands for the Jewish people in the Diaspora, the State of Israel has already been established and these lands must now serve all its citizens. For those living for tomorrow and not the past, the aim is to create in Israel a healthy, progressive state where the needs of the two peoples should concern the leaders and legislators. The Jewish National Fund's land policy counters the interests of the state and cannot discriminate by law against the minority living in Israel.

Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics heir and national JNF chair released a crowing statement which praised the Knesset for reaffirming the JNF's right to discriminate:

We are gratified that the government of Israel ... recognised that the land purchased by the Jewish people for the Jewish people should remain in the hands of its rightful owners. This Knesset decision reaffirms the vision and the dream of Theodor Herzl and the millions of Jews over the past 106 years who contributed and participated in the rebirth of a Jewish nation after 2,000 years. The land of Israel is part of the very existence of the Jewish people from as far back as Abraham. We are a people linked to our land. Now and forever.

Jerry Haber, a liberal Orthodox Israeli-American blogger, pointed out the bogus nature of this response in a private email to me:

This argument is invalid for two reasons: First, the vast majority of land owned by the Jewish National Fund was not purchased by Jewish individuals but rather was expropriated by the Israel government in the early years of the state from absentee Palestinian owners and transferred to the fund so that the Israel government could not itself be accused of discriminatory land leasing - a legal fiction of dubious morality. Second, no parallel mechanism for the settlement needs of Arab citizens was ever established. On the contrary, as the Or Commission set up after the Israeli Arab protests in 2000 noted, "Arab settlements have been surrounded by security zones, Jewish district councils, national parks, nature reserves, and highways, that prevent or inhibit the possibility of future expansion."

The reason this issue is so complicated is that Israel considers itself the homeland of the Jewish people. As such, it currently discriminates in many ways in favour of its Jewish citizens. But at the same time it considers itself a democracy and includes a sizable minority of Arab citizens. These two elements have always co-existed in a tense relationship. While there undoubtedly remains a high level of prejudice against Israeli Arabs, social developments - which include the High Court ruling - have been very gradually eroding some of the more odious discriminatory regulations.

This legislative attempt to restore to the JNF its right to discriminate in favour of Jews may be seen as a rump effort by the Israeli right to take back its prerogatives and return to the era when Jews predominated and there was never a doubt that Arabs were second-class citizens. Is it too much to expect a majority of the Knesset to see this and put down this attempt to enshrine Jewish dominance into the law of a state otherwise proud to call itself a democracy?

:: Article nr. 34874 sent on 29-jul-2007 01:37 ECT


:: The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Uruknet .

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