Court to state: Justify ‘admission committees' law

Critics of highly controversial legislation passed by Knesset in March say it will ultimately lead to segregation.

dorit beinisch 311 Ariel Jerozolimski (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
dorit beinisch 311 Ariel Jerozolimski
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Dorit Beinisch ordered the government and the Knesset on Monday to come before an expanded panel of judges within 60 days to explain why the recently passed law approving admission committees for rural communities should not be canceled.
A day after the law passed in the Knesset in late March, a petition against it was filed by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, Adalah and the Abraham Fund Initiative, as well as by residents of the Misgav region who oppose the committees.
The law, which passed with a vote of 35-20 and was sponsored by Israel Beiteinu MK David Rotem and Kadima MKs Yisrael Hasson and Shay Hermesh, authorizes admission committees in rural villages in the Negev and the Galilee numbering less than 400 families to vet applicants for residency.
The law’s explanatory notes state that its purpose is to protect the unique character of rural villages and maintain their social cohesion. Similar arrangements already exist in many villages in the form of local regulations, but the passing of the law gave them a formal legal standing.
The law deals mostly with new neighborhoods being built in moshavim and kibbutzim.
Residency in these neighborhoods requires newcomers to join a residents’ association, and joining the association requires applicants to go through an acceptance process.
The processes differ from one community to another; some go so far as to require that newcomers undergo a full day of suitability testing in evaluation institutes, similar to the tests required for hiring in some workplaces, but all have to undergo an interview by an admission committee.
In their petition, the NGOs argued that the law authorized residents of more than 300 villages that meet the criteria to “filter out” potential residents on the basis of “obscure” criteria.
They claimed that the clause in the law that enables the rejection of candidates for “lack of suitability to the sociocultural makeup” of the village discriminates against Arabs and other minorities. They also claimed that the law circumvented past High Court decisions forbidding the creation of Jewish-only villages.
Though the law specifically prohibits the refusal of candidates on grounds of race, religion, gender, nationality, disability, age, parentage, sexual orientation, country of origin or 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.
“Before us is a new law that not only leaves the existing regulations in place, but expands them and gives more force to the filtering process,” said ACRI attorney Gil Gan- Mor. “The law enables committees to reject an applicant on the basis of an expert opinion, even a graphologist, whereas in the past, it could only be a psychologist’s professional assessment. This gives a license to reject anybody for practically any reason.
The respondents say it themselves – that the purpose of the law is to maintain homogeneity, something we believe is unjustifiable in a democratic country.”
The petitioners claimed that in lieu of any distinctive characteristics, the only justification for a community to reject someone is because of a fear that the person will harm the residents’ quality of life.
Lawyers for the state argued that the petition should be rejected since none of the doomsday scenarios anticipated by the petitioners had been put to the test.
“My esteemed colleague gave the worst possible interpretation of the law. We think it is too early to judge. The cases will tease out the problems. We think it is better to give the method time to work itself out,” said state attorney Gur Bligh.
“The only question worth investigating now is whether or not the law is constitutional,” Bligh continued. “We think there is no way to decide that before it is put in practice.”
He added that the petitioners were concerned about potential injury, not to the concept of the committee.
“They are worried that it will lead to discrimination, but it has never been tested,” Bligh said. “Knesset members and legal counsels took the material and debated it thoroughly, changing it according to suggestions, some which were even proposed by the petitioners.
We prefer to fine-tune the law by interpretation and not by complete cancellation of the law.”
After the sides completed their arguments, Beinisch consulted for a few minutes with her fellow justices before ruling that the petition would be heard by an expanded panel of nine. The petitioners rejoiced.
“We hope that the court’s decision signifies its willingness to rule in our favor, a ruling that will strengthen the principle of equality and the proper use of the legislative process,” said Abraham Fund Initiative co-director Mohammad Darawshe. “This would indicate that laws, even if democratically passed, cannot harm the minorities. We hope that it will also stall anti-democratic legislation by the current Knesset, which is led by a nationalistic and often racist agenda.”
Darawshe said he believed the expanded panel would work in the NGOs’ favor.
“It is a case of the basic principle of democracy: The more you add intelligent people to the debate, the better its chances of achieving justice.”
The court will have to decide whether the desire of some localities to be “defined communities” and reject those who are not to their liking overrides the right of citizens to live where they want and their rights of dignity and equality,” said Gan-Mor. “Admission committees have been discriminating and humiliating people for many years, and the law only serves to better anchor the injustice.”