Good neighbors, bad neighbors

There are MKs I wouldn’t want to live next door to – but I certainly should not have the authority to bar them from doing so.

Anti-migrant protesters at Barak's house 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Anti-migrant protesters at Barak's house 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Where should you and I be allowed to set up our home in this country? A High Court hearing and a Knesset debate which took place this week will eventually determine the answer to this question.
Creating a home is not simply a private matter. It is the result of policy relating to land distribution and ownership, which determines both where you could live but also who would be allowed to live next door. Recently, discomfort with existing or potential neighbors has received public attention and caused much unrest in Israel: Residents of south Tel Aviv are protesting against their new African neighbors; prominent rabbis are speaking out against renting and selling apartments to non-Jews in Safed and elsewhere; and MKs are calling to allow private citizens living in yishuvim (villages and communities) to determine who will be their new neighbors.
The legislative, executive and judicial branches have all dealt with this crucial question of access to land over the years, at times arriving at contradicting conclusions. One such case is that of acceptance committees to yishuvim. Since the majority of the land in Israel is owned by the State, and yishuvim are located predominantly on state-owned lands, the acceptance committees have the power, de facto, to decide who will access public land – and who will be barred from using it. These acceptance committees, made up of private people, exist in hundreds of communities and villages across the country. Some of these include communities with distinctive characteristics, such as the vegetarian-and-vegan-only Moshav Amirim; but many are large villages of hundreds of families united only by a desire to purchase a nice piece of land in a nice place.
ON TUESDAY, the High Court heard the cases of two families, one Jewish, one Arab, who had attempted to make a home for themselves in two yishuvim in the North, but were rejected after being found “unsuitable” by an admissions committee. Supreme Court President Justice Dorit Beinish criticized the in-depth investigation that these admission committees carried out, stressing the breach of privacy by psychological examinations: “I have not managed to find the so-called unsuitability discussed. These are not distinctive communities, but people who simply wish to live in a beautiful house in the Galilee”.
The justices will have to eventually decide whether the rejection of these families stands in contradiction to the precedent ruling of the High Court in the Ka’adan case. This Arab family from the Galilee, which was represented by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) a decade ago, convinced the court that barring them from purchasing land and building a home in Katzir only because they are Arabs (they were suitable according to all other criteria) constitutes unlawful and inappropriate discrimination. This verdict was a step in the right direction, and it came after a long-standing policy of establishing new communities in the Galilee for Jews alone despite the high percentage of Arab citizens living in that region. Making matters worse, some of these yishuvim were set up on land expropriated from Arabs, all the while refusing to establish new Arab towns and failing to provide appropriate zoning and development plans for existing Arab communities.
Set out to combat the High Court ruling, MKs devised in 2009 a new bill that would circumvent the court’s decision. The Admission to Committees Bill sets in law the mandate of admission committees to accept and reject candidates. While attempting to include some clauses that would state that discrimination on the basis of religion, for example, is not permitted, the bill nonetheless offers private citizens the possibility to prevent other private citizens from accessing public land because, for one reason or another, the committee believes the candidates “fail to meet the fundamental views of the community”.
On Tuesday, the Knesset Constitution Committee voted in support of this bill, paving its way for a final vote in the plenum. If the bill passes, it can be presumed that those found unfitting of the social fabric would include Arab and other non-Jewish citizens, new immigrants from certain countries, same-sex couples, people from lower socioeconomic status, those who suffer from disabilities and even old people.
MK David Rotem of Yisrael Beiteinu, one of the advocators of the bill, noted in October during a heated Knesset debate on this proposed bill that despite his wish to bar Arabs from living with Jews in a yishuv, “one Arab is useful to have around” if one needs to turn the light on or off on Shabbat. His remark, presented jokingly but stinking of bigotry, did not go down well with some of the other MKs who participated in the discussion. Would he dare make the same remark about “one useful Ethiopian” to prepare traditional injara?
Perhaps Justice Beinish was right when she concluded: “I think that if we were to check everyone around us we may end up alone.”
I can think of a few MKs I wouldn’t want to live next door to – but I certainly should not have the authority to bar them from doing so. It’s one of the state’s main obligations to provide citizens with equal opportunity to make a home for themselves. Yes, small and unique communities which are based on arvut hadadit (the Jewish concept of communal solidarity) should be allowed to determined who is absorbed into their community. But regular, suburban- like yishuvim should not be allowed to bar fellow citizens. They should not be given the power to decide who their neighbors are.
The writer is spokesperson for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.