NGOs to petition against ‘racist laws’

Bill sponsor Rotem: Israel is Jewish and democratic, not a state of all its citizens.

March 24, 2011 04:53
David Rotem.

David Rotem 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )

Following Knesset passage of the Admission Committees Law in the early hours on Wednesday, a group of NGOs filed a petition to the High Court of Justice requesting it to rule the law unconstitutional.

The law authorizes the activity of “admission committees” in rural villages in the Negev and Galilee that number fewer than 400 families.

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It deals mostly with new neighborhoods being built in moshavim and kibbutzim, where residency requires newcomers to join a residents association.

The acceptance process for these associations differs from one community to another, and some go so far as to require that newcomers undergo a full day of suitability testing at evaluation institutes, similar to the testing required for employment in some workplaces. However, all applicants have to undergo an interview by an acceptance committee.

The legislation, sponsored by Israel Beiteinu MK David Rotem and Kadima MKs Yisrael Hasson and Shai Hermesh, was passed after midnight by a vote of 35-20. It was a watered-down version of the original bill, which was altered at the request of Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin.

The original proposal sought acceptance committees for all places with fewer than 500 households.

The law’s explanatory notes state that its purpose is to protect the unique character of rural villages and to maintain social cohesion. Similar arrangements already exist in the form of local regulations, but the law gives them a formal legal standing.

According to the law, the acceptance committees will be made up of two existing residents, a representative of the movement the village or neighborhood belongs to, a representative of the Jewish Agency or the World Zionist Organization, and a representative of the local council.

In their petition, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and The Abraham Fund Initiative argue that the law authorized more than 300 villages or neighborhoods to screen potential residents on the basis of “obscure” criteria. They claim that a clause that enables the rejection of candidates for “lack of suitability to the socio-cultural makeup” of the village discriminates against Arabs and other minorities.

They also claim that the law circumvents past High Court decisions forbidding the creation of villages for Jews only.

Though the law specifically prohibits the refusal of candidates on grounds of race, religion, gender, nationality, disability, age, parentage, sexual orientation, country of origin and political affiliation, the petitioners claim that its real purpose is to exclude Arabs and that the committees would find ways to reject them on other grounds.

“The law is nothing but a license to discriminate and exclude minorities and undesirable populations, and to ensure ‘quality’ neighbors. A law such as this does not suit a democratic, human rightsprotecting state,” said the petition. “Moreover, the screening processes do not even meet the secondary goal of the law – protecting the social cohesion of the villages, and possibly even harm it.”

ACRI attorney Gil Gan-Mor noted that despite being called “communal villages,” life in the majority of these locales was not “communal” and they had no unique characteristics, yet the law will enable discrimination by basing the acceptance of residents based on vague criteria.

“Based on these criteria, the committees currently reject ‘unwanted’ groups that wish to live in the village – such as Arabs, single parents, disabled persons, same-sex couples, Mizrahi [Sephardi] Jews, religious people and so on,” Gan-Mor said.

The petition includes previous petitions filed to the court by rejected applicants, among them the family of a disabled IDF veteran, Arab families, a family of immigrants and a family of Mizrahi Jews. Two other petitions already standing before the court were filed by families that were rejected for “social incompatibility.”

The petition further includes affidavits from residents of villages that already have acceptance committees.

In one, a resident of the expansion zone at Kibbutz Ma’ayan Baruch in the Upper Galilee describes how acceptance committee members explained that the selection process was frequently a cover-up, and its actual purpose was to prevent the sale of property to Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews as a means of bypassing a court ruling that forbids discrimination.

In another affidavit, Eliyahu Stern, a resident of the communal village Ya’ad who chaired the local committee, details the selection process. Stern states that very often, the committee rejects applicants because of a sudden caprice by a members.

Stern also says that in most cases, the evaluation institutes act mainly as a rubber stamp for the committees, and do not screen applicants based on local requirements.

The petitioners requested an immediate injunction against the law, arguing that its implementation would “enable the further entrenchment of discrimination and exclusion of population groups at a time when land is in short supply.” “We are filing a petition to the High Court and demanding that it disqualify the Admission Committees Law because it is a racist, inappropriate and anti-democratic law,” Gan- Mor said. “This law is intended to legally enable the establishment of Jewish-only communities, which has already been ruled unconstitutional.”

He added that it “sends a message of separatism” and anchors discrimination against minorities in law.

“The state condemned the recent, racist ‘Rabbis’ Letter,’ which called on Jews not to sell or rent apartments to Arabs,” he said, “but this law is exactly the same.”

Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu and Mohammad Darawshe, directors of The Abraham Fund Initiative, said the law “establishes a mechanism of ethnic segregation between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel under the auspices of the Knesset.”

The Arab rights organization Adalah said it would file a petition of its own against the law.

The NGOs also spoke out against additional legislation passed late Tuesday night, the Nakba Law, which permits the state to refuse funding for organizations that reject the fundamental values of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

According to the law, statefunded bodies of this type would be fined at a rate equal to three times the amount of the state funding. If within two years the same body is found to have violated the law again, the fine will be doubled.

Nakba is Arabic for “catastrophe” and is how Israeli Arabs generally refer to Israel’s Independence Day, which they see as a day of mourning. The Nakba Law was sponsored by Israel Beiteinu MK Alex Miller and passed 37-25 in the Knesset plenum.

ACRI attorney Dan Yakir said the law will limit specific forms of expression while attempting to dictate a single ideological and historical truth.

“This bill severely damages freedom of political expression, freedom of artistic expression, and freedom of protest, which are all basic rights and are essential to the very existence of a democracy,” Yakir said.” The Abraham Fund said that Knesset members are mistaken to think that one can force the Arab minority to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day. It is important to allow Arab citizens to learn about and acknowledge their painful past. It is also important that mutual understanding of the other’s historical narrative exists between the Jews and Arabs in Israel.”

During the Knesset debate on Tuesday, Rotem said he was proud to be a member of the Knesset that passed such laws.

“I am not ashamed that I want to maintain this country as a Jewish and democratic state,” Rotem told the laws’ critics. “You are worried about democracy, but in your way there would be no state.

Israel is a Jewish and democratic state, not a state of all its citizens.”

Hours before the vote began on the bills, Balad chairman Jamal Zahalka complained that “On this black night, we will turn to the whole world in order to get protection from this anti-democratic government led by Binyamin Netanyahu.”

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