Are we really all Israelis?

Marking Land Day this year in Umm al-Hiran.

A new immigrant at Ben-Gurion airport kisses the tarmac as he makes aliya (photo credit: REUTERS)
A new immigrant at Ben-Gurion airport kisses the tarmac as he makes aliya
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 Arguably, I made aliya because of Land Day, marked by Israeli Arabs each March 30 since 1976. The first Land Day was a general strike and widespread demonstrations protesting massive land expropriations. Six Israeli Arabs were killed by Israeli security forces. This catalyzed the late Rabbi Bruce Cohen to create “Interns for Peace,” the program that brought me to live in the Western Galilee village of Tamra, fostering positive interactions between the villagers and Jewish Israelis in nearby Kiryat Ata. Rabbi Cohen felt impelled to act when he saw the headlines “Israelis Kill Six Arabs,” asking why the headlines didn’t read “Israelis Kill Israelis.” I had always said that I would live wherever I could make my contribution to Tikkun Olam (repairing the world). Those years convinced me this was the place. Here, everything I thought of as Jewish values met the test of power. In Tamra I would frequently hear the litany of discrimination faced by Israeli Arabs in almost every aspect of their lives. The conversation would often end with, “We could live with everything, if only Israeli Jews would see us as Israelis.”
Much has changed since the early Eighties, but much hasn’t.
At 4:00 p.m. on Land Day I will be in Umm al-Hiran in the northern Negev. JNF-KKL bulldozers are currently carrying out the government plan to build Jewish “Hiran” on the rubble of Umm al-Hiran, even though it was Israel that moved the Abu al-Qian tribe to this location in 1956. Forced to leave their pre-state village, they were given long-term leases and promised that here they could rebuild their lives. The government contracted with the tribe to plant the JNF’s Yatir forest, but now plans for it to overrun the tribe’s second village, Atir.
Like most Negev Beduin villages that existed before the state, or are located where the state moved them, these two villages were never recognized. They didn’t receive the infrastructure or services other Israelis received from their government. Villagers tell stories of IDF soldiers coming home to demolition orders, but also how the national infrastructures minister at the time contributed personally for better moored homes after a storm blew away some of the structures in the village. In 2010 the government’s “Committee for Principled Planning Issues” voted to recognize Atir.
The Prime Minister’s Office pressured them to reverse their decision. Government officials tell us that there is a three-stage plan for Hiran. The current earthwork, partially on cultivated lands, is preparation for prefab houses. Permanent housing will then be built between the prefabs and the village. Finally, Beduin Umm al-Hiran will be destroyed in order to expand Jewish Hiran.
Our High Court recently removed the last legal hurdle preventing expulsion by declining to reconsider its earlier decision not to intervene. Cynically, many who rail against the court now piously ask how anybody could oppose a High Court ruling. They forget that the court didn’t order the government to displace fellow citizens. Leading Israeli legal experts professors Mordechai Kremnitzer and Hanoch Dagan wrote after the original May 2015 decision that the judges acknowledged the justice of the Beduin’s cause, but declined to overturn the government decree because the villagers appealed too late (Israeli Democracy Institute June 1, 2015).
Legally, it’s permissible to wipe these two villages off the face of the earth. But the court hasn’t absolved us of our moral responsibility as Israeli citizens. Is this what we wish our government to do in our name? Is this what our parents meant when they taught us to keep our promises? Is this the fulfillment of the pledge we made to ourselves in our Declaration of Independence that Israel would “guarantee total social and political equality for all citizens, regardless of religion, race or gender?” Our 2013 poll showed that Israeli Jews aspire to be fair to the Beduin. We won’t carry out these plans because we are better than that.
Amazingly, there’s a seeming consensus including the Beduin, the government and even the right-wing NGO Regavim regarding a solution. At a recent Knesset Interior Committee discussion, both government officials and Regavim pointed out that Hiran will be open to all citizens. Umm al-Hiran residents are willing to return to the still open lands they were moved from 60 years ago, to live next to a Jewish community built on the vast open land outside the two villages, or to live in a mixed community.
However, the government intends to expel them to the Hura township, even though Hura’s pro-government mayor Muhammad al-Nabari, who lectures abroad for the JNF, states that there is no room for the residents of Umm al-Hiran, Atir and the many other “unrecognized” villages the government wishes to force into Hura. Once removed from their homes, Beduin will be “eligible” to compete for plots in Hiran by applying to an admissions committee. Unsurprisingly, they don’t believe they’ll be admitted.
If the government is serious in its declaration, this potential additional blot on Israel’s image and ticking time bomb threatening the Negev can be turned into a shining example of coexistence. The government merely needs to reinstate the decision to recognize Atir, and allow Umm al-Hiran residents to remain in their homes until they can move into a new Hiran neighborhood.
On Land Day fellow citizens will ask whether we Jewish Israelis will treat them as Israelis, as we wanted to be treated when we lived as the minority. Approaching Passover, will we live by the Torah’s command not to oppress non-Jews living among us because we know what it’s like (Exodus 22:20, 23:9)? As we tell ourselves that the majority can “democratically” displace a minority, will we remember how years before Theodor Herzl Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch taught that these verses are a warning to the future Jewish state that the “abomination of Egypt” was the Egyptian belief that their power gave them the right to do with us as they pleased? Over 1,000 citizens are in immediate danger of losing their homes. We have an opportunity for Kiddush Hashem, to sanctify God and bring honor to Israel by living up to our highest Jewish values.
The author is President and Senior Rabbi of Rabbis For Human Rights.