Equitable housing plans for Jews and Arabs

Do residents of a town have the right to shape for themselves a homogeneous community that excludes segments of the population?

galilee housing 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
galilee housing 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Arab MKs stormed out of the Knesset Law Committee on Wednesday in protest against what they called racist legislation. Attorney Suhad Bishara of Adaleh, a legal center for Arab Israelis, claimed that the bill, which was approved by the committee for a second and third (final) reading in the Knesset, would be “the first in the State of Israel that facilitates apartheid in housing policy.”
And Meretz chairman Haim Oron criticized the proposed measure as part of a larger trend in the Knesset to pass laws that discriminate against Arab citizens.
The controversial legislation, the result of a combination of two separate bills, backed by MKs from Israel Beiteinu and Kadima, would allow small communal settlements in the Negev and the Galilee to reject would-be residents on the basis of vague criteria such as the candidate’s perceived incompatibility with the settlement’s “social-cultural fabric.”
Critics claim the legislation, which specifically prohibits acceptance restrictions based on race, religion, gender, nationality or physical handicap, would, nevertheless, make it easier to keep out Arabs by enabling settlements to disingenuously claim a candidate is unfit for its “social-cultural fabric” when in reality the reason is that he or she is an Arab.
THE BILL is the latest legislative attempt to confront the ramifications of the High Court’s March 2000 Katzir ruling. In a highly contested decision, the court ruled at the time that the State of Israel was not permitted to allocate state-owned land for Jewish-only ownership. Specifically, the state was ordered to reconsider the application of Adel and Iman Kaadan, an Arab-Israeli couple from Baka al- Gharbiya in the Galilee, to lease a plot of land and build a home in the nearby Jewish community of Katzir. In 2004 the couple received a permit to build.
As in previous discussions of the issue, there is a tendency toward hyperbole. Arabs and some on the Left have let loose accusations of racism, while the Right has demanded the untrammeled right to Jewish hegemony without considering ways of reducing inequalities. Unfortunately, in this atmosphere of mutual recrimination, constructive discourse is impossible.
It should be pointed out that neither the High Court nor recent legislation has attempted to tackle the larger question of equitable land allocation and ownership. About 93 percent of the land in Israel is owned by the state, a vestige of both the Ottoman and the British Mandate regimes. Of the 7% that is privately owned, half is owned by Arabs. In addition, about 20% of lived-on stateowned land has been allocated to Arab Israelis, proportional to their relative population size. If Arab Israelis feel that land allocation to Arab communities and towns is being performed in an unfair way, this is a claim that must be addressed. Israel’s commitment to democracy and equality demand as much.
But the Katzir ruling and this week’s controversial small-communities bill deal with a different question: Do the residents of a small town (500 families or less) have the right to shape for themselves a homogeneous community that excludes certain segments of the population, including Arabs?
Few would deny communities of religious Jews the right to ensure public adherence to Shabbat by keeping out secular candidates. Nor would they prevent communities such as Neveh Shalom, a moshav near Jerusalem that promotes coexistence between Arab and Jewish residents, from maintaining its delicate population balance. The desires of Arab, Druse and Circassian communities ought to be respected as well. In short, not every arrangement that separates communities is racist and unjustified.
ISRAEL IS the only country in the world where Jews are the majority. Only here can they enjoy the advantages of living in a state whose language, holidays and national symbols are their own. And while Jews are the majority in Israel, they are a small minority in a hostile region. In contrast, Arab Israelis, who make up a (large) minority in Israel, belong to an overwhelming majority in the region.
In this state of affairs Jewish Israelis, including the secular majority, should have the right to live in a community where they are not threatened by intermarriage or by becoming a cultural or religious minority. However, denying Arabs the right to high-standard building projects of their own while prohibiting them from living in Jewish communities that enjoy these high standards can certainly be construed as discrimination.
The optimal, fairest solution is to provide a comprehensive, nationwide housing plan that offers varied and satisfactory solutions for both Jews and Arabs – including Jews and Arabs interested in living together in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic environment.