On February 27, the Supreme Court ruled that Israeli governments have been discriminating against Israeli Arabs since the 1950s in supplementary funding of education in the Galilee and Negev. As part of the national project to "Judaize" those regions, the government gives massive amounts of money every year to Galilee and Negev communities to build additional classrooms, hire more teachers, increase preschool class hours, set up computer labs and provide financial aid to university students.
The court found that of the more than 500 Galilee and Negev communities that have lately been getting this "national priority area" funding, only four are Israeli Arab communities.
Representing the court's unanimous opinion, President Aharon Barak wrote: "The government [budgetary] decision deals with one of the most basic rights - the right to education. Its result is tainted by one of the most 'suspect' distinctions, which is the distinction made on the basis of nationality and race. It should be expected that governmental policy in this area will maintain equality between Jews and Arabs."
Government funding to national priority areas goes not only to raise the level of their schools, but also of their industry, housing, tourism and agriculture. These communities not only get money from the government, their citizens also get income tax breaks and their businesses get business tax breaks. So the Supreme Court decision clears the way for lawsuits against the government for discriminating against Israeli Arab communities in the Galilee and Negev in all these areas.
"We definitely are going to challenge various aspects of government funding that are clearly discriminatory," says Orna Kohn, acting general director of Adalah, the Israeli Arab legal organization that first filed the suit back in 1998.
Unequal education is only the beginning of official discrimination against the Arab sector. This inequality isn't limited to national priority area budgets, to the Galilee and Negev - it runs throughout the system of government funding.
Amnon Rubinstein, whose former ministerial posts included justice and education and who made a broad study of Jewish-Arab inequality in recent years, says, "It would take three to five years, and a lot of money - $10 to $15 billion - to reach full equality in education budgets between the Jewish and Arab sectors. In other areas like agriculture, industry, religious affairs and [infrastructure such as] sewage systems, it's even worse."
If there is one blight on Israel's democracy - one deliberate, black-and-white violation of the principle of civic equality - it is this: Israeli governments, from Independence until now, have spent much more money on Jewish citizens, per capita, than they do on Arab citizens. This situation is accepted as a given by most informed Israelis, regretted by some and defended by others. Yet when the charge of inequality rises from angry, anti-Zionist Arab Knesset members, the Jewish majority tends to recoil. The Supreme Court's decision and sharply-worded opinion of February 27 gained attention for a few hours, then got swallowed in the ongoing news cycle.
But even Jewish political moderates tell of blatant discrimination against Israeli Arab citizens in government budgeting - budgeting for purposes that have nothing to do with security, but rather with purely civilian matters.
"Many of the Arab municipalities get only 60 or 70 percent of the basket of government funds that typically goes to Jewish municipalities," says Adi Eldar, chairman of the Union of Local Authorities and mayor of Karmiel.
And it doesn't even help if the Arab municipality is pro-Zionist. In 2001, I interviewed Shfaram Mayor Ursan Yassin - then a Likudnik, a Sharon supporter and a defender of police tactics in the October 2000 riots in which 13 Israeli Arabs were killed.
"Everybody knows that there is inequality" in government funding to municipalities, he said haplessly. "Shfaram gets about 70% of the money that Safed gets, which has about the same population."
Asked why, Yassin just shrugged.
"Before Rabin," he said, meaning the Rabin government that took office in 1992, "we used to get 20%."
In his inaugural address to the Knesset, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin admitted that its treatment of the Arab minority was "not a source of pride" for the nation. In the years since, a substantial measure of equality has been introduced to government budgeting, notes Rubinstein, now president of the academic Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.
"For instance, in National Insurance Institute payments, in health insurance, in pensions, there is now absolute equality," he says. Yet in budget items that aren't dictated by law, but rather by the considerations of government ministers - such as budgeting for national priority areas - then, Rubinstein says, "There is a very big difference. On the whole, the Arab sector unquestionably gets less than the Jewish sector, it's not even a matter for discussion."
While that difference has been shrinking in the last two decades, he points out that "for the 40 years before that, it kept growing. You're not going to close such a gap quickly."
AS ISRAELI ARAB towns go, Kafr Kasim is economically well-situated. Located in the center of the country, right next to Rosh Ha'ayin, its 20,000 or so residents have more job opportunities than Arabs living in the north or south. The town is best known for the massacre by Border Police of 48 unarmed villagers, adults and children alike, for violation of the curfew called suddenly on the eve of the 1956 Sinai War.
In more recent times, it is known as the center of the Islamic Movement's "southern faction," which, unlike its northern counterpart based in Umm el-Fahm, favors Arab integration in Israel. The southern faction's leader, Ibrahim Sarsour, was Kafr Kasim's mayor from 1988-98, and is expected to enter the Knesset after this month's election.
Driving up the hill that leads into town, the first impression one gets is of growth and progress: A massive new community center that could be the flagship community center of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Haifa is nearly completed.
On closer inspection, however, it turns out to be deserted. The glass front doors are broken. The inner doors are boarded up. The bathrooms have been stripped of toilet seats and towel racks. On the wall near the entrance to the building, a dusty plaque reads, "Built with financing by the Ministry of Housing and Construction, September 2003."
Since then, construction has come to a halt; the Housing Ministry won't transfer the money needed to finish the project until the Kafr Kasim municipality comes up with its share. This should be a while, because Kafr Kasim is effectively bankrupt.
This local monument of waste and ruined expectations can be explained, in part, by the town's poverty. However, other sights found in Kafr Kasim but not found in Israel's Jewish sector can only be explained by official discrimination.
Here and there along the town's side streets, electricity poles stand in the middle of traffic lanes; they were built before the streets were widened and the Electric Corp. hasn't seen fit to move them since. About half the town's homes still don't have sewage systems; the waste runs directly from their toilets into wells in their backyards, and from there into the groundwater.
Kafr Kasim sits across a valley from the tall, modern buildings of Rosh Ha'ayin's industrial zone. That industrial zone was built on land that once belonged to Kafr Kasim, but that was expropriated by the state after the 1948 War of Independence. The two municipalities have been fighting over the land for many years; in the 1990s, government attempts were made to set up a joint Kafr Kasim-Rosh Ha'ayin industrial zone on part of the disputed area. Rosh Ha'ayin's mayor at the time, Yigal Yosef, balked at the idea, saying it would create a dangerous precedent for Arab municipalities seeking to reclaim their expropriated land.
"The whole country will be theirs," an alarmed Yosef told The New York Times.
In 2000, interior minister Natan Sharansky, representing the Barak government, came to Kafr Kasim and agreed to return 250 dunams of expropriated land to Kafr Kasim.
"But the government changed hands and the agreement never went through," says Abed Suleiman, head of the town's water and sewage department. "We're not asking for the land anymore, but at least let us have some of the profits from the industrial zone that was built on it."
This is one of the causes of Kafr Kasim's economic woes, says Adi Eldar: "They can't collect taxes from the industrial zone that they don't have."
Asked in a telephone interview why Kafr Kasim, like other Arab municipalities, doesn't have an industrial zone worth the name, he replies, "As you undoubtedly know, the state took more than a little land from Kafr Kasim to give to other municipalities - no, that's an explosive issue, I take back what I said."
BUT THE MOST troubling sign of the way Kafr Kasim is shortchanged on government funds shows up at Al Omariya elementary school, a small, well-worn school built in the 1970s. Opening the door to one of the classes, we see a scene of overcrowdedness to a degree that would be hard to imagine at a Jewish school.
The class is about 30 square meters in area, and there are 32 pupils seated inside. About half the desks, meant for two pupils each, have three children sitting at them instead. The teacher, a 29-year veteran of the profession, says she's taught as many as 40 pupils in a classroom of this physical size.
"But it's not as bad as it used to be here," she says. "Before, when I would stand on the balcony and look down at the courtyard, I couldn't see any empty space between the pupils, it was so crowded."
Muktal Taha, principal of the school for the last 24 years, notes that the situation at Kafr Kasim schools "is much better than what you find in the schools in the Beduin sector, for instance. They don't even have electricity."
Furthermore, the school's funding has grown a little over the years.
"We get a few more hours of class time," Taha points out. No longer does it have to hold classes in rented rooms, like schools in many other Arab towns still do, he says. But while Kafr Kasim's schools are not at the bottom of the Israeli educational ladder, they are well below the level of schools in Israel's poor Jewish towns. "For us, Sderot and Ofakim are America," the principal says.
Many of the amenities the government pays for in Jewish schools are paid for by pupils' parents in Kafr Kasim, says Badir Mufid, a parents committee member at a newly built local junior high school.
"We had to pay for the air conditioners and for the computers. We're like an ATM machine for that school," says Mufid, an attorney who sends his child to four private, after-school "enrichment" classes to make up for what the junior high school doesn't teach.
Rubinstein recalls the situation he found upon taking over the Education Ministry in 1993.
"There was a program called Shahar that gave money to schools with underachieving students. The money went to Jewish schools only. I stopped that immediately and added budgets for Arab pupils, but even in my term we didn't get to absolute budget equality," he says. "I cut inequality by two-thirds. Every new program, such as computer labs and music classes, was run on the basis of absolute equality.
"And in some areas we even went further - we built more classrooms in the Arab sector than we did in the Jewish sector. We gave the Arab schools so much money, the principals didn't know what to do with it all. My goal was to reach complete budget equality [for the entire Arab school system, including in existing schools], but our term in office ended in 1996."
When asked why the government couldn't simply build enough new schools in the Arab sector to bring class size, at least, in line with that of the Jewish sector, Rubinstein replies that the problem goes beyond the many billions of dollars needed.
"There aren't enough well-trained Arab teachers to head the classes, especially in English, Hebrew, math and sciences. There isn't enough development of good Arab teachers," he says.
Asked then why Jewish teachers in these subjects couldn't be sent to teach in Arab schools, he explains, "It's very hard to bring Jewish teachers to Arab schools, just like it's very hard to bring Arab teachers to Jewish schools. It's even hard to bring Arab teachers from the Triangle to Beduin schools in the Negev. It's a cultural problem."
He notes how a program to train Arab teachers to teach in Jewish schools produced an 80% failure rate among the trainees.
"The main problem was that they didn't know how to cope with the lack of discipline among Jewish pupils," Rubinstein notes. I suggest that maybe this points to a problem among Jewish students, not Arab teachers, but he points out that discipline is often maintained in Arab schools by the kind of authoritarianism and harsh punishment that's unacceptable in Jewish schools. "Including physical punishment," he adds.
Kafr Kasim's local council head, Sami Issa, is loosely affiliated with the Islamic Movement's southern branch, but his most relevant affiliation by far is with the Issa hamula, or extended family, which is the largest in town. Local Arab politics still revolve around the hamulot. Looking, at 43, like a gray-haired fashion model, Issa sits for an interview in his comfortable office inside the town's shabby municipality building. An Education Ministry banner reading, "The reform in education begins in Kafr Kasim," hangs outside the entrance to his office.
After he recites a litany of examples of how Kafr Kasim is shortchanged compared to Jewish municipalities, I ask Issa to rank them by severity. The worst, he says, is the schools, then infrastructure such as streets, water and garbage, then government grants. Ranking his nemeses in government, Issa puts the "senior bureaucracy" first, cabinet ministers second and the Finance Ministry third.
GOVERNMENT officials often blame the money woes of Arab municipalities on the systematic corruption and nepotism that plague so many of them. They also point to the widespread Israeli Arab opposition to paying municipal tax (arnona).
Yet Rubinstein points out, "Even well-run Arab municipalities are discriminated against" in government budgets. Regarding arnona collection in Kafr Kasim, Issa says that until a couple of years ago, only 17% of local property owners paid it.
"Since then we've gotten it up to 53%," he says, noting that this was achieved by coercion - by threatening to send licensed debt collectors for the money, an ordeal no Israeli wants to go through.
Coming out of Issa's office before the interview was Shas MK David Azoulai. He had come to drum up voter support for Shas in the election, arguing that poor Arabs, even in the Islamic Movement, and poor Jews, even in Shas, should work together for their common interests, says Issa.
The meeting pointed out what seems like an anomaly in Arab-Jewish relations - Shas is generally well-regarded among Arab voters, even Muslim fundamentalists. Once again, it goes back to the Rabin government, yet the main credit goes to Shas's fallen golden boy who was Rabin's interior minister.
"You ask any Arab mayor," says a Kafr Kasim municipal official, "and he'll tell you that nobody helped this town like Aryeh Deri did."
Issa concedes that "Shas was more or less alright," adding that among Zionist parties, Labor and Meretz are more sympathetic to the Arab sector than right-wing parties.
"Where the extreme right holds power, the door is closed to us," he says. Asked to compare the Netanyahu, Barak and Sharon governments in their responsiveness, Issa replies flatly, "No difference."
Arab Knesset members, he continues, are powerless to help their constituents on bread-and-butter issues.
"They're not in the government, they have no influence," he shrugs. Asked if there was anyone he could call on to advance Kafr Kasim's interests, he names Rehovot Mayor Shuki Forer, Ramat Hasharon Mayor Itzik Ruchberger and Adi Eldar.
"Say I need a letter of authorization from the Finance Ministry, which would take me a month to get, they can get it in a week," he explains. A loan to Kafr Kasim from Bank Ha'otzar, under the Finance Ministry's auspices, was recently expedited by Eldar.
It is hard to fathom how Israeli governments still get away with systematic budget discrimination against Arab citizens while under the eye of a Supreme Court as liberal as the current one, and with no shortage of Israeli civil rights lawyers, Arab and Jewish, to press their case.
What makes it especially hard to understand is that the Barak court has ruled in favor of Arab petitioners in cases much less cut-and-dried than the national priority areas case. This court ruled that the Jewish Agency had no right to bar an Arab family from buying a home in Katzir, an all-Jewish community built on Agency-administered land. The court even rejected the state's security claims by ordering the rerouting of the West Bank security fence so it would cause less hardship to Palestinians living nearby. In light of such rulings, why did it take until 2006 to get the Supreme Court to strike down such a blatant case of anti-Arab discrimination as the budgeting for national priority areas?
"First of all, I don't agree that the Supreme Court has shown that much courage regarding cases that the state argues have security implications, and the state evidently thinks that Judaizing the Galilee and Negev are security issues," says Adalah's Orna Kohn. Furthermore, she notes that Adalah has won earlier Supreme Court decisions over government budget discrimination, but none ever served as a precedent to end all budget inequality. What's more, she says, the government commonly found ways to get around the court's rulings.
"In 1997," she recalls, "Adalah brought a case to the Supreme Court against an Education Ministry program that had been giving additional funds to schools with a large proportion of pupils from a low socioeconomic background. Since the program began in the 1970s, all of its funding went to Jewish schools. As if there were no Arab pupils in Israel from a low socioeconomic background. The court ruled in our favor in 2000, and ordered that the program give 20% of its funding to Arab schools, and to achieve this within five years. We considered this a very important decision, but what happened is that the Education Ministry canceled the program two years later.
"There was a very similar outcome in a case we brought to the Supreme Court in 2000, against a government program that also had been going on since the 1970s, giving money for urban renewal to poor neighborhoods - again only to poor Jewish neighborhoods," she continues. "In 2002 the court ruled that this program, too, was discriminatory, and that the urban renewal funds should be allocated according to objective criteria [regardless of whether the neighborhoods were Arab or Jewish]. But soon after the court ruling, the government decided to cut back drastically on funding for urban renewal, and not to add any new neighborhoods at all to its list of recipients.
"The easy way around court rulings [against budget discrimination] is for the government to just cancel the program in dispute," says Kohn. "It happens over and over." Unfortunately, she notes, a weapon against such clear-cut discrimination cannot be found in the Basic Law - Human Dignity and Liberty, which is Israel's approximation of a constitutional guarantee of human rights. "Read the law - the word 'equality' is never mentioned," says Kohn.
Last week, the cabinet decided to hire 75 more Arab civil servants in the next three years, saying this was meant as a step toward correcting the extreme underrepresentation of Arab employees in government offices. Asked if she thought the government might have taken this step to avoid another lawsuit over discrimination, Kohn dismissed the move as a sop to Arab voters that is common on the eve of national elections.
"Seventy-five more civil service jobs in three years doesn't even scratch the surface of the problem," says Kohn, echoing the criticism against the hiring plan made by Arab Knesset members as well as many of their Jewish colleagues.
Still, Kohn thinks this latest Supreme Court ruling won by Adalah was an important one with a far-reaching message. "We now have a Supreme Court decision confirming something that until now was a matter of controversy - that there is discrimination against Arabs in government budgeting," she says. "The court found that this has been taking place not in a small-scale government program, but in a very major program, and that it has been taking place for decades and that it should not continue. The claim of deliberate discrimination made by Arab Knesset members all these years, which was dismissed by the Israeli majority as baseless, has now been backed up by the Supreme Court.
"I think there is a need now for the Israeli government and the public to reconsider its traditional, complacent way of dealing with this charge, which has always been to say, 'No, it's not true, it's not really happening.'"