Opening Lines: Who’s a racist?

The government should scrap its ‘ministries of nothing’ and create a body that would work to bring Israeli Muslims and Jews together.

November 12, 2010 12:21
Beduin youth wave Islamist flags by Rahat mosque

311_Islamist protest in Rahat. (photo credit: Associated Press)

Forget the Iranian nuclear bomb, the international campaign to delegitimize Israel, or the flagging peace talks with the Palestinians. This week’s news started with internal, inter-ethnic explosions which spotlight what is really threatening to pull this country apart. The theme of Arab-Jewish tensions spilled over from last week, and the week before, and the week before – but rarely have I seen so many examples happening in one 48-hour period.

LAST WEEK ended with news that a proposed bill would make it legal for admission committees of small Jewish communities in the North to refuse housing to anyone they chose (not only, but certainly including Arabs). The bill aims to bypass a High Court of Justice ruling which allows Arabs to buy a house in any Jewish community.

Next was a halachic ruling by the chief rabbi of Safed that forbids Jews from selling or renting homes to Arabs, which again raised widespread accusations of racism by some, and praise from others for the efforts to preserve those communities’ “Jewish character.” In Safed, a 90- year-old veteran of the Palmah who had rented his apartment to two quiet Druse students was threatened, by his haredi neighbors, that his home would be burned down, possibly with him in it.

Overnight Saturday, an illegally-built mosque in the Negev Beduin town of Rahat was bulldozed. Seven hundred policemen were deployed, and serious clashes between local residents and the cops ensued. The demolition order was signed by the (Beduin) mayor of Rahat, Faiz Abu Tahiban. The leader of the municipal opposition (a Beduin) said the demolition offended the sensibilities of the Muslim inhabitants, that illegally built synagogues are never destroyed like this and that the Israel Lands Administration should not be able to tell a municipality what usage to make of land within its jurisdiction. Other Beduin in Rahat were less diplomatic, with radio microphones picking up the voices of protesters saying, “Jews are sons of bitches,” and “Jews are evil, this state is evil” and “We’ll start an intifada in Rahat.” They called the demolition a racist act.

A (Jewish) official from the southern district in the ILA, which was responsible for the demolition, explained that the court had ruled the mosque was illegally built, that the Rahat municipality was warned dozens of times and was asked to take down the mosque itself, that an alternative site for the mosque was proposed and that everyone knew the whole mosque affair was being orchestrated by the Islamic Movement, which is banned for incitement to hatred against Jews. In the meantime, Rahat residents have started rebuilding the mosque, and the ILA said it would demolish it again. The Muslims accuse the Jews of racism, the Jews say the Muslims are knowingly violating the law.

This incident is just one example of several similar situations playing out across the country as Arabs and Jews vie for control of the land. There are some 70,000 buildings without proper authorization, and this problem is only going to get worse. The mosque should not have been allowed to be built, or demolished before it was finished, the Beduin say. But destroying an already constructed mosque is another story, and makes a Muslim’s blood boil, not just here, but across the world. Arab, Beduin and Druse local council leaders and mayors are reluctant to go against their constituents when the latter violate building codes. So when the state authorities come to enforce the law, the Jews are accused of selective enforcement and racism.

NEXT came the remarkable story of a Jewish man who had bought a house in an Arab village in the North, because he wanted to live somewhere cheap and quiet. After being warmly accepted at first, the Jew was subsequently and unceremoniously hounded out of town by his new neighbors. They threatened to burn the now Jewish-owned house down with him inside it. Before he bought the home, the Jew had meetings with his neighbors and village elders, who all assured him that he was welcome to live among them. “No problem. Ahlan wa sahlan,” they told him.

The day the Jew took possession of his new home, however, things changed and the atmosphere rapidly deteriorated. The Arab neighbor who just weeks before sat with his new Jewish neighbor over coffee and proclaimed he would be a welcome addition to the village gathered some local goons and told him, in no uncertain terms, to leave town immediately.

The Jew, a regional manager at a security company in the North, called the police, who told him they could not do anything until an actual crime was committed. When the threats intensified, he decided to leave and rent a room in Haifa. In the meantime, his house remains empty, and he fears going there to collect his belongings.

ALSO ON SUNDAY, a Magen David Adom ambulance, paid for by Jewish donor money and staffed by Jewish paramedics, was stoned by Arabs as it made its way to an Arab village in the West Bank when it went there to pick up an Arab man who had fallen from the third story of a building and was seriously injured. The ambulance traveled along the Jerusalem- Ma’aleh Adumim road without Border Police escort, as that road is generally considered safe. Driving through the hail of stones, the paramedics reached the small village, picked up the injured Arab and drove to a Jewish-run hospital in Jerusalem, where Jewish and Arab doctors work.

AS SUNDAY wore on, the High Court rejected a petition by Arab residents of the Jaffa neighborhood of Ajami against the selling of Jewish-only housing units in a building built by the B’Emuna organization. B’Emuna, which represents the national religious sector, is now free to go ahead with its program of marketing apartments only to Jews in the overwhelmingly Arab neighborhood. Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch threw out the petition on the grounds that the “deal was already done” and the Ajami residents should have brought their suit earlier.

She did warn, however, that this would be the last time the court would approve the marketing of apartments to only one sector of society. Ajami’s Arab residents are not happy about the ruling, and it won’t be a stretch of the imagination to assume that conflict will surround this building once the Jews move in.

AND AS THE SUN set on Sunday, a court indicted a Nazareth imam on charges of incitement to violence against Jews. It seems that the imam was using his weekly sermons to spread al-Qaida propaganda and values, and inspire his flock to acts of murder. Two of his congregants were previously indicted on charges of murdering a Jew and plotting to murder the pope and kidnap IDF soldiers. The imam, Saqfe Iman, received his salary from the state (the Interior Ministry) and ran a website espousing extremist Islamic propaganda.

MUSLIM-JEWISH STRIFE seems to be increasing as the populations of both segments swells, remaining land is hotly contested and existing divisions deepen. Israel is being accused, both internally and internationally, of being a racist state. The meaning here is, obviously, Jewish Israelis. But, that minefield apart, it is quite clear from some of the above examples that racism is alive and well in the Arab-Israeli Muslim sector too.

Racism and xenophobia stem from not knowing, or not wanting to know, the “other.” As news editor of this paper over the years, I’d regularly downplay stories pitched me by coexistence organizations when I thought they were ineffective, unimaginative or generally more interested in publicity to secure funding than to effect actual change on the ground. Nowadays, I’m even more cynical, but a lot more desperate to promote coexistence programs. There are some nominally effective, conscientious and brave organizations out there, but they are just holding their fingers in the dike. Furthermore, they are not coordinated among themselves. Some of them are also considered stridently political, which alienates segments of society that do not agree with their views.

Also, they’re mostly Jewish-run and funded by Jewish and European money. Wouldn’t it be great to see more Israeli Arabs establishing coexistence organizations? Perhaps with government help this could be encouraged, especially if the government scrapped its myriad politically-expedient ministries of nothing, pooled their budgets and formed a Ministry of Coexistence that initiated, funded and supported effective, modern and brave programs that could start stitching the various sectors of this society together. Things like mutual Arab-Jewish social networks, more combined sports and school visits, more interaction in arts, culture, media and business.

As things stand now, we’re drifting dangerously away from a sustainable situation. And I urge anyone reading this, if you’re looking for an opportunity to volunteer somewhere, you could do worse than giving some of your time, money and energy to coexistence projects.

To read more about this and other pieces, check out Amir's blog at

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