Discriminatory powers?

A law allowing local citizens’ committees to keep out ‘undesirables’ has led to a nationwide debate over Zionism, racism and the ‘right to choose your neighbors.’

undesirables 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
undesirables 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
MK David Rotem looks over his desk and in a firm voice declares that yes, Israelis have the absolute right to block people they deem undesirable from moving into their neighborhoods.
“I believe that everyone is allowed to choose his neighbors,” he says. The Yisrael Beytenu MK explains that the country’s Jewish citizens should be allowed to prevent Arabs from coming into their neighborhoods, if they so choose.
“I think that I’ve got the right to tell [an Arab], no, you cannot” move into my neighborhood, he says.
By the same token, he continues, “I wouldn’t dare to buy an apartment or to buy a piece of land in an Arab village and build my house there, because I know that while I might come in, I’m not sure that I will come out.”
The MK says he supports “building special cities for the Arabs. I don’t want them to be mixed with me when I need a kosher neighbor whose house I can eat in.”
Speaking from his office in the Knesset, Rotem, a national-religious resident of Efrat, is explaining the rationale behind a law he passed last year – along with Kadima MKs Yisrael Hasson and Shai Hermesh – that formalizes the legal status of preexisting community acceptance committees in periphery towns.
He doesn’t mention that the law – the legality of which the High Court of Justice is now debating – only applies to the Negev and Galilee, and not to Judea and Samaria, where he lives.
Of course, his remarks and his bill – known as the Acceptance to Communities Law, which allows for communities built on state lands to reject applicants who “do not suit the lifestyle and social fabric of the community” – have opened him up to charges of racism from groups such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which is seeking to strike down his legislation.
Ten years ago, the High Court ruled in a landmark case that Adel and Iman Kaadan, an Israeli-Arab couple from the town of Baka al-Gharbiya whom ACRI was representing, could not be barred from moving into the Jewish community of Katzir due to their ethnicity. ACRI is using this precedent in its current suit.
Despite clauses in Rotem’s law that prohibit discrimination “based on reasons of race, religion, gender, nationality, disabilities, family status, age, parenthood, sexual orientation, country of origin, ideology, or political activity,” it seems that discrimination is still occurring on a regular basis, say Rotem’s opponents.
According to his bill, which formalized a procedure long established in the country, a five-member committee composed of two residents of the community in question, a representative of the ideological movement to which the community belongs, a member of the local regional council, and a representative of the Jewish Agency or the World Zionist Organization can make decisions regarding who is allowed to live in “communal settlements” with fewer than 400 families in the periphery.
What that means, in essence, is that a potential resident must meet with the approval of his neighbors before being allowed to buy a house. Selling property to a prospective resident without the approval of the local committee is deemed illegal.
With many Arabs feeling too discouraged by the daunting process of “going through all this Via Dolorosa of the acceptance committees,” says ACRI attorney Gil Gan-Mor, “most of the people who are trying to get accepted to these communities these days are Jews.
Arabs know that they have very little chance of being accepted, and they don’t even try.”
ACRI and its co-petitioner Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel believe that “the type of screening permitted by the law will inevitably lead to discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel, as well as the exclusion of other marginalized groups such as gays, the disabled, single parents and Mizrahi [citizens].”
According to Ari Singer, the law is indeed used capriciously to discriminate against anybody the committee members do not like.
The law does not apply to rentals, only to purchases.
Singer, who recently became a father for the first time, complains that in seeking to join Migdal Oz, a religious kibbutz in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, he was forced to go through a series of demeaning tests to prove his compatibility.
He says he and his wife were sent to the Jerusalem offices of Machon Shefi, an institute that conducts compatibility tests for many small communities. After answering many personal questions from a psychiatric professional, as well as submitting to a handwriting analysis, he and his wife were told that they were “not compatible” with the local community.
“I’m very insulted,” he says. “The testing was demeaning.”
These tests, ACRI confirms, are standard for many villages, and for some applicants, this process can take years.
According to the organization, this is what many people from minority groups have to deal with every time they wish to join a settlement in the periphery.
In a statement, ACRI and Adalah have alleged that the state’s defense of Rotem’s law is “extremely problematic, as it justifies discrimination against people who wish to live in around 475 small towns (those with fewer than 400 families) located on public land in the Galilee in the North and in the [Negev] in the South, both areas in which high numbers of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel reside. These towns compose 46% of all communities in Israel and 65% of all rural communities. Admissions committees determine who will and who will not live in the wide open land spaces, according to their sole and independent discretion.”
The High Court is now deliberating on the matter while both sides await word on a judgment.
Rotem, however, dismisses Adalah’s and ACRI’s claims, saying he is merely defending Zionism from those who wish to eradicate the Jewish nature of the state.
Critics of Adalah have made similar charges in the past, as when the organization became a signatory to the Haifa Declaration, a document that multiple Israeli-Arab civil society organizations produced, demanding “a change in the constitutional structure and a change in the definition of the State of Israel from a Jewish state to a democratic state.”
Speaking with great force, Rotem says the law and the committees it establishes are necessary because “this is Zionism. That’s exactly what Zionism is. Settlements, security and immigration are the three subjects of Zionism.”
According to the parliamentarian, haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews should have the right to exclude national-religious or modern Orthodox Jews such as himself, and his community should be able to exclude the secular because he doesn’t “want to make trouble between people.”
“I don’t want to have haredim as my neighbors, and I don’t think that the haredim want dati leumi [national-religious] people as their neighbors,” he says.
“Now, I’m not doing it in areas where people are buying property for a lot of money,” he explains. “I am doing it only in the periphery, where people usually don’t want to come to, and I don’t want people with a lot of money to come and buy settlements. I want to settle people there and I want to reduce the prices of property, not make them higher.”
Asked if Zionist values would allow a Jew to settle anywhere he wanted in the State of Israel, Rotem replies that a Jew “can move wherever he wants, [but] he cannot live every place.”
He stresses that in big communities with more than 400 families, “people don’t know each other, and then I do open” those places for general settlement.
“The reason is that [in places with fewer than 400 families,] you have a small community,” he continues. “You want them to speak to one another, so you want to make sure that there is something to connect them, and you don’t want people who are not acceptable to come and sit there and trouble them.”
He declares that “I would like to keep Zionism as Zionism, and everyone who wants to live in a community should be able to live there. But the minute that the issue becomes a flag of organizations that are against Zionism and are trying to annul the Jewishness of settlements...
I am against it.”
DESPITE THE law, in some towns that have made the transition from small town to city, the committees continue to operate. In the West Bank haredi city of Betar Illit, which now has thousands of families, a “va’ad ichlus,” or population committee, continues to screen people – although residents admit that it is rather toothless.
Batia Holin of the Or Movement – an organization that works to establish both religious and secular communities in the Negev and Galilee – echoes the idea that a small heterogeneous group is necessary to allow a community to thrive after its establishment.
Holin, as a leading member of her movement, automatically has a seat on several committees, and as such, she regularly makes decisions about whom to allow and whom not to allow in her towns.
People come to the Or Movement’s towns to “to build communities, and they must build homes, not houses,” she notes, saying that it is important for her residents to want to establish “a community with a cultural life” and not just to buy real estate.
The communities in which the committees operate are the ones in the periphery, she says, and it is important to have a group that meshes well, to deal with the sometimes harsh conditions and isolation in those areas. Those accepted to the new Negev communities, she says, must be able to create a culture and communal life from scratch, “because they are far away from cities.”
“The law agrees that in the periphery, where people must live by themselves and make all they need by themselves, it makes sense that the people can live with one another,” she says.
Regarding ACRI’s assertions, she replies that the organization is “making trouble” and that the law clearly prohibits discrimination.
“You know that [by] law, you can’t say, [people] can’t come and live with us if you are Arab or if you are old” or any other such criteria, she says. “You can’t do it.”
The committees want to admit people, she stresses. The purpose of the communities is, after all, bringing people to new and empty areas.
However, some critics allege, the harshness of latter-day settlement is not as it once was in the early days of the state. Some of the new towns being established, the Or Movement admits, are being sold based on their proximity to Beersheba.
Most sides agree that kibbutzim, in which all property is owned jointly, are different. But regarding the battle to abolish the committees, Holin believes, like Rotem, that the fight is less over the legal niceties and more about the role of Zionism in Israeli society.
“If there are no committees, many communities will not exist,” she says, indicating that the homogeneity of the initial seed groups allows the newly built towns to flourish. Many people, she continues, are not willing to live near the Gaza Strip – far away from jobs in the Center, and in the sights of Hamas – unless they can receive a sense of home and comfort in return.
People want “to live here, even if its difficult,” she says, but keeping them there means giving them a place where they can feel rooted.
To Gan-Mor, most of these reasons ring hollow.
In the Binyamin region of Samaria, he says, “they completely changed the acceptance contract of the community to include provisions like, for example, that the candidate must hold the view of the community about serving in the army, about Zionism and so on – provisions that obviously exclude Arabs, [who] cannot be part of communities that force them to be committed to such values. Even if they want to take part in the life of the community and be good neighbors.”
The element of discrimination comes into play, he says, when these communities are started “by giving the land without a tender to the Jewish Agency, and because of that, all of those communities are designated for Jews. I think that what the Arab population is demanding is... to able to get equal access to the public land that are given to those communities.”
Following the Kaadan case, he continues, communities found different ways to screen potential residents.
“Instead of saying, we accept only Jews, or we don’t accept Arabs, or people with disabilities or single moms or immigrants that we don’t really want to see in this community, they do it in a different way. This way, [they say,] we are going to make an acceptance committee, and this committee will check candidates according to criteria like how they fit into the community and its social life – if they are suitable for the social and cultural fabric of the community, which [means] ‘You are like us and you are not different,’” he argues.
“So we cannot discriminate against you because you are Arab, but we can discriminate because we are a community of Jews. Or we we cannot discriminate against you because you are religious, haredi, but because we are secular.”
This kind of discrimination is “even worse,” he charges, because “it’s hidden and it’s covered with criteria that seem to be equal, but they are definitely not equal.”
If a community had a special character, things might be different, he suggests.
However, the communities establishing committees, many of them close to large cities, are no different from other suburbs.
“So I don’t think that they even have the right to screen people who want to live there, especially when it’s public land. I don’t think that there is any reason to choose a person over his friend according to the measure [of whether] he is like us or not like us.”
Regarding the provisions in the law preventing discrimination, Gan-Mor contends that they “cannot be implemented equally.”
WHILE THE far Right and Left bandy words about discrimination against minorities, some mainstream Israelis are complaining that the issue is less about sectarian conflict and racism than about people toying with others’ lives just because they can.
The committees are just capricious, says Rabbi Dan Marans, the director of the Tzomet Institute, an organization that manufactures “kosher” hi-tech gadgetry for the IDF, hospitals and the private sector that can be used on Shabbat.
Marans is an influential and beloved figure in the national-religious community.
His personal status, however, was not enough to prevent a community to which he applied from rejecting him due to his age.
The people on the committees, he says, “don’t necessarily represent the views of the people who live in the village. It’s just a way for people who don’t have strength and don’t have positions” to assert themselves.
“Usually people who are busy and successful don’t have time or the interest in calling and asking about people and all this process,” he argues, adding that having a committee is “ridiculous. People are going to fit in more or less [without one].”
All arguments over Zionism and racism and the nature of the State of Israel aside, everybody admits that there is a possibility of these committees being misused.
Even Rotem concedes this possibility.
It may be, he says, that “the rules are not working because people are playing with them, because they don’t want somebody to come into their town. It’s a possibility.”