Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni’s dismissal of Arab workers renovating bomb shelters in the city’s preschools drew criticism from across the political spectrum Thursday, and government officials pointed to its illegality.
“We should not discriminate against an entire public because of a small minority that is violent and militant,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
“The vast majority of Israeli-Arab citizens are law-abiding, and we are acting resolutely against those who break the law.”
Interior Minister Gilad Erdan said his ministry, which is responsible for municipalities, is examining the legality of Shimoni’s decision.
“We cannot act in a way that will besmirch an entire population group in Israel. Decisions like this can lead to increased tensions,” he told Israel Radio, calling for leaders to try to bring calm and security.
In a Facebook post Wednesday night, Shimoni wrote that bomb shelter renovations being performed by Arabs will be stopped as of Thursday, and that he had ordered the placing of armed security guards for kindergartens and preschools that are next to construction sites that employ Arabs.
“I thank the Ashkelon police for its cooperation on this matter and the donor who helped pay for the security guards,” said Shimoni. A spokesman for the Lachish regional police, including Ashkelon, said they have nothing to do with the initiative.
Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein on Thursday sent a letter to the mayor telling him that if he does block the employment of Arabs in Ashkelon, it could have “grave public and legal consequences.”
Weinstein’s deputy, Oren Funo, wrote that a 1988 law prohibits discrimination due to race or ethnicity in the workplace, that this is a fundamental tenet of the law in Israel, and that the mayor would need to explain himself if he issues a discriminatory order.
Erdan and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni asked Weinstein to investigate Shimoni.
In a letter to Weinstein, Livni said the mayor’s instructions “undermine the basic principles of equality and nondiscrimination and violate the Equal Opportunities in the Workplace Law,” and she called for Weinstein to deal with the violation to the full extent of the law.
The commissioner for equal employment opportunities at the Economy Ministry, Tziona Koenig-Yair, called the municipality’s actions illegal, adding that in recent days the ministry received several requests regarding employers firing or wishing to terminate the employment of Arab male and female employees solely on racial grounds.
She clarified that the Equal Opportunities Law (5748-1988) clearly prohibits employers from discriminating against their employees on account of their race, ethnic origin or religion.
Employment discrimination due to race, whether by terminating employment or accepting for employment, is forbidden by law.
“During these difficult times, I expect employers to exercise responsibility and leadership to encourage tolerance and equal opportunities, and not exclusion, particularly local authorities such as the Ashkelon Municipality, which publicized that it has terminated the employment of Arabs in the municipality, a step that breaks the Equal Opportunities Law,” she said.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett said the country must have zero tolerance for racism in the workforce.
“Ninety-nine percent of Israeli Arabs are loyal and want to integrate. There is a tiny minority that uses violence and causes terrorism, and we must crack down on that, but [we must] also integrate and bring closer the vast majority of Israeli Arabs. This is a key to our future here.”
Bennett said he already instructed that his ministry reaffirm its opposition to workplace discrimination, which is illegal.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid said calls not to employ Arabs are racist, unacceptable and intolerable.
“That is surrendering to terrorism, because we are giving up our everyday lives to extremists instead of supporting coexistence,” he said. “The vast majority of Israeli Arabs live with us, and we don’t need to insult them and behave like this.”
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said “the attempt to prevent Israeli Arabs from making a living just because they are Arabs goes against our values.
At this time, we must reject all racism and discrimination against Israeli Arabs or any other person and act to bring calm.”
Ya’alon pointed out that by law Israeli Arabs have rights equal to all other Israelis, and said the country must be careful to ensure they can exercise those rights, and be careful to avoid dangerous populism in order to continue working toward the Arab minority’s integration in general society, rather than alienate them.
Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said it was “sad that relations between Jews and Arabs will suffer because of some jihadist fanatical terrorists.”
He said that on the one hand “one can understand” the fear of parents of kindergarten children afraid “someone will take a knife one day, as happened in the synagogue in Jerusalem, shout ‘Allahu Akbar’ and begin to attack.”
On the other hand, he said, “this is something that should be handled while keeping the generally good relations between Jews and Arabs.”
Steinitz said it was important to be “very careful to keep Arab-Jewish relations as good and normal as possible.” Most Israeli Arabs, he said, “are loyal to the State of Israel and would never engage in terrorist activities against the State of Israel.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) said the Ashkelon mayor’s decision was immoral.
“Even in more difficult wartimes than today, Israel did not take steps of discrimination and deprivation against Arabs who live among us as citizens with equal rights. Where will we be if we fan the flames?” Herzog asked.
The Labor Party leader called on all leaders to show responsibility, criticize the decision and work toward safe coexistence between Jews and Arabs.
Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On said she understands why parents of preschoolers in Ashkelon are afraid of having Arab workers near their children in a time when there have been many terrorist attacks, and “when they hear the government say again and again terrorists are equal to every Arab.”
However, she said, racism is the easy option and it does not have any justification from a security standpoint.
“Not only is this against the law, but it is clearly immoral,” she wrote on Facebook. “The decision takes the children in these preschools into consideration, but not the children of the workers, who will ask their fathers why they aren’t going to work and will have to hear an answer that will scar them for life.”
Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List- Ta’al) petitioned Weinstein against Shimoni’s decision, which he called anti-Semitic.
“Security is an excuse for clear racism and law-breaking.
By that principle, Arab nurses and doctors should be fired from hospitals, and Arab bus and taxi drivers should be separated from Jews. This separation has a name, and it’s apartheid,” he stated.
Tibi warned that “what starts with separate buses in the occupied territories quickly moved to separation between Jews and Arabs in Israel.”
Histadrut labor federation chairman Avi Nissankoren said he thinks it is “unforgivable that in the State of Israel someone would take away a person’s right to work because of his religion or origins.”
Jafar Farah, the director of the Mossawa Center – The Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel, said his NGO would “sue the mayor of Ashkelon for inciting for breaking the law prohibiting discrimination in the workplace.”
Farah added that if there were Jews willing to work in construction, then they would not hire Arabs.
“Let’s see Ashkelon, hospitals and other places get by without Arab workers,” he said.
“The stoppage of Arab labor will paralyze services and cause losses of more than NIS 100 million a day.”
Farah blamed Netanyahu for worsening discrimination against Arabs and the security of Arabs and Jews.
“Thousands of Jewish workers are employed in Arab municipalities and have never received similar racist treatment.”
Thursday night in Ashkelon, dozens of residents gathered to demonstrate in favor of Shimoni.
The Abraham Fund Initiatives released a statement saying it is understandable that the current security situation causes fear among parents and the public in general, but “public leaders at the local and national level need to act responsibly and avoid actions that label Arab citizens as a danger.
“Unfounded labeling only increases the feelings of fear and hostility and is dangerous and harmful to the fabric of relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel.”
Meanwhile, an urgent letter sent by Jerusalem’s Deputy Mayor Yossi Deitch and council member Yitzhak Pindrus to the Egged bus line chairman Avi Friedman on Wednesday made an unequivocal demand to fire striking Arab bus drivers who have not shown up for work the past four days following the suicide of a fellow driver in Jerusalem on Sunday “This is a real danger to human life if it is not addressed immediately,” said the letter to the Egged chairman.
Following an onslaught of unfounded claims in the Palestinian media Monday that the driver, Yusuf Hassan al-Ramouni, was murdered by Jewish settlers, an autopsy report concluded the driver’s death was self-inflicted, resulting from hanging himself inside the vehicle.
Yonah Jeremy Bob and Lidar Grave-Lazi contributed to this report.