Housing ban on Arab Israelis advances

Sharon Cabinet endorses move to legalize towns made up of only Jews

July 09, 2002|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JERUSALEM - Touching off a divisive national debate, the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has endorsed a proposed law that would allow Jews to bar Arab citizens of Israel from living in or buying homes in many Israeli communities.

The attempt to legalize "Jews-only" towns was swiftly criticized by numerous Israeli politicians and human rights groups, who said it is a discriminatory and racist proposal. Supporters praised the law for protecting what they called the essence of Zionism.

The debate goes to the heart of Israel's existential contradiction: How can it be both a Jewish state and a democratic state?

"Israel is the state of the Jewish people; but because it is a Jewish state, it must not practice against its non-Jewish citizens the kind of discrimination to which Jews were subjected in the Diaspora," said Dan Meridor, a Cabinet minister who opposed the law.

Drafted by members of an ultranationalist right-wing party, the law comes in response to a landmark decision by the Israeli Supreme Court in March 2000 that said Arab citizens are entitled to use state-owned land. The court ruled on a petition from Adel Kaadan, an Israeli Arab who had been turned down repeatedly in his efforts to buy a home in an all-Jewish community in the Galilee region of northern Israel.

Decision draws fire

Right-wing and religious parties in Sharon's coalition endorsed the proposed law in a closed Cabinet session Sunday, with most members from the center-left Labor Party absent. When it was publicized yesterday, the decision triggered a firestorm.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said his Labor Party will "fight with all its power against the racist decision" - even if it means quitting the government.

The bill faces several legal hurdles in the parliament, or Knesset, before it becomes law.

Assigning land for Jewish-only housing opens Israel to criticism at a time when its reputation in the Arab and Muslim world is especially low because of Israel's war with the Palestinians, Meridor said.

Reconciling ideals

Education Minister Limor Livnat, a member of Sharon's Likud Party and the legislation's main proponent in the Cabinet, said it is a mistake to see the decision as racist. It protects Israeli security by helping to ensure a Jewish majority in heavily Arab Galilee, she said.

"This does not stem at all from discrimination, rather from the main basis of Zionism - the return of the Jewish people to its land," Livnat said.

"If Zionism is racism, then we are all in trouble," Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin, also of Likud, told Israeli radio.

"We are trying to convince the whole world there is no gap between Judaism and democracy; but when there is a conflict, everyone has to remember there is only one Jewish state. We have to keep it secure [for its] future. ... This is the state for the Jewish people, not the state for all its citizens. That has to be obvious."

Israeli Attorney General Eliyakim Rubinstein opposed the legislation, saying it is unnecessary and would further strain Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.

About 1 million Arabs live inside Israel and hold Israeli citizenship; they make up roughly 20 percent of the state's population. They have long complained that predominantly Arab areas are given inferior state services, their schools are underfinanced and their roads need repair.

Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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