Arabs in Israel decry racial discrimination

Palestinian citizens of Israel are blocked from living in Jewish communities for lacking ‘Zionist vision’.

Admissions committees are common in Jewish communities across Israel's Negev and Galilee regions [EPA]

Haifa, Israel – As a Palestinian citizen of Israel, 21-year-old Shadan Jabareen says she has experienced institutionalised discrimination since she was a child. In 1994, her parents wanted to get away from the constant noise and the overcrowded Umm al-Fahm and move to a Jewish-Israeli community.

“My dad heard an advertisement on the radio for homes in Katzir,” she said, referring to a kibbutz, or Jewish agricultural community, in the country’s north. “The admissions committee told my dad that they didn’t want Arabs because it would lower the community’s value in Katzir,” Jabareen, who studies literature at Tel Aviv University, told Al Jazeera.

After a legal struggle, her parents eventually were admitted to buy a home in Katzir, where they lived for seven years. “The neighbours were usually okay with us, but the admissions committee never wanted us.”

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Admissions committees are common in small semi-cooperative Jewish communities across the Negev and Galilee regions in Israel. In compliance with larger regional councils, these admission committees evaluate potential residents and ultimately decide whether to accept them into the communities.

In March 2000, just a few years after the Jabareen family’s struggle, the highly publicised Kaadan case made waves when the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal to discriminate in housing admission based on ethnicity or religion. The Kaadans, an Arab couple from a nearby town, waged a long legal battle to protest their being rejected by Katzir’s committee.

Fourteen years down the line, on September 17, the Israeli Supreme Court essentially undid that ruling when it dismissed petitions put forward by rights groups challenging the Admissions Committee Law.

Passed in 2011, the legislation legitimises the use of admission committees to reject potential applicants based on “social suitability”. If admissions committees view applicants as “harmful” to the “social-cultural fabric of the community town”, they are permitted to turn them down.

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Falling short of a majority, four judges ruled against the law. Judge Asher Grunis, one of the five judges who sided in favour of the law and struck down the petitions, ruled: “The court does not have a sufficient factual basis for a decision” because the objections raised in the petition are “hypothetical and theoretical claims”.  

Nonetheless, several rights groups say it is most frequently employed to block Arab citizens from living in Jewish communities.

According to the Haifa-based Adalah legal centre, one of the petitioning groups, the Admissions Committee Law is just one of more than fifty laws designed to discriminate against the estimated 1.7 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, by muzzling their political expression and curbing their access to state resources, most importantly land.

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Most Palestinians in Israel live in areas of cities, towns and villages in Israel that suffer from governmental neglect and a lack of economic opportunities. They belong to a diverse community of Muslims, Christians, and Druze.

Salah Mohsen, an Adalah spokesperson, explained that the Admissions Committee Law institutionalises anti-Palestinian discrimination in 434 exclusively Jewish-Israeli communities throughout the Negev region in the south and the Galilee region in the north. “The issue is that the law authorises localities built on public land to have these kinds of committees,” Mohsen told Al Jazeera. “Out of the 434 localities, only a few Arab communities live there. And that was only after long petitions and going to the court.”

Mohsen added that the law allows admissions committees to decide based on their evaluation of the applicant’s “Zionist vision”, referring to the country’s founding ideology. “This is a way of basically disqualifying all Arabs,” he continued. “Zionism or political views shouldn’t be part of the criteria, especially in a country with a minority persecuted by Zionism.”

Though the admission committees often exclude non-white Jews, same-sex couples, and many other groups, Mohsen argues that the Arab minority is the most discriminated against.  

Supporters of the admissions committees argue that the communities should be bound by common social ethos. Among the vocal supporters is Ron Shani, who is mayor of the Misgav Regional Council, an area that includes some 35 Israeli communities in the Galilee region.

“The admissions committees have nothing to do with Arab citizens,” Shani told Al Jazeera. “In small communities, and more specifically in rural and periphery areas, the only reason communities survive is their common social bonding.”

Shani says that Palestinian citizens of Israel are not discriminated against on the basis of their ethnicity, arguing that “the only issue is if they live in harmony within the small community”.

Upon reading about the court’s decision to uphold the Admission Committees Law, Jabareen says she “was very disappointed” and that “it just makes the discrimination more official than it already was”.

The lady who interviewed me asked if I'm a Muslim or a Christian... She told me it's going to take a long time for a security check because I'm a Muslim.

by - Shadan Jabareen, 21, Palestinian citizen of Israel

She believes that the discrimination her parents faced during their struggle for a home in Katzir has only worsened in recent years. “Saying socially acceptable is about whether someone is Jewish or Arab.”

More recently, she recalls that in July, she was denied a summer job at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport. “The lady who interviewed me asked if I’m a Muslim or a Christian,” she explained. “She told me it’s going to take a long time for a security check because I’m a Muslim.”

After Israel’s most recent military offensive in the Gaza Strip, Jabareen says: “I didn’t end up getting the job. She emailed me and said they were overstaffed, even though she had told me they were very understaffed just a couple weeks before.”

Jabareen, who believes that she was denied the job due to her ethnicity, pointed out that many Palestinians in Israel were fired from their jobs during Israel’s 50-day military operation against the Gaza Strip. According to the New Israel Fund, a group that monitors racism: “Dozens of Palestinian Israelis were fired from their jobs for expressing opposition to the war on social networks.”

The Israeli prime minister’s office declined Al Jazeera’s request for a comment on the court ruling.

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While the Israeli Knesset was still considering the law in 2009, parliamentarian David Rotem, a cosponsor of the Admissions Committee Law in its bill form, stated that it enables the creation of communities “established by people who want to live with other Jews”.

Meanwhile, several political groups and Palestinian activists denounced the ruling.  

Jamal Zahalka, a Palestinian member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, argues that the majority of Israel’s political establishment has become increasingly racist. “It is one of many apartheid laws,” Zahalkha told Al Jazeera. “They want to create places where only Jews can live, where Arabs cannot live. It reflects the rising of racism … the levels of racism is soaring while the level of democracy and respect for human rights are declining rapidly.”

Zahalka says the law is “part of a pattern” that has continued unabated since the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who engaged in negotiations for the two-state solution with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.

“Every week, we have a new racist law in the Knesset,” he said. “I promised my friends if there is a week without a racist law I will throw a big party. Guess what – I haven’t thrown a party yet. While they are packaged as regular on the surface, they always somehow manage to take from Arabs’ land and give [it] to Jewish Israelis.”

Israel’s Supreme Court, according to Zahalka, “doesn’t differ much from the mainstream [political] establishment”, adding that laws regarding the allocation of land and housing are “the most racist” in the country.

Hadash, a communist political party with both Israeli and Palestinian members, also denounced the court’s ruling. “The judges legalised preventing the Arabs from inhabiting lands where Israeli cities and communities have been built on land confiscated from the Arabs themselves,” member Dov Khenin, a Knesset member, said in a press release.

Omar Barghouti, an influential Palestinian activist and co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), said that the court ruling “confirms, yet again, that Israel’s so-called justice system is structurally flawed and an indispensable pillar of Israel’s apartheid system”.

Since the state’s 1948 establishment, Palestinian citizens of Israel have lived under a constant state of “racial discrimination” and “this ruling will legitimise what has always been practiced against them: a Jim Crow system that denies them equal rights in all vital aspects of their lives only because they are not Jewish,” Barghouti told Al Jazeera.

Back in her Tel Aviv dorm room, Jabareen says: “It is much harder now to believe in coexistence,” adding that “we are always taught about coexistence and peace and living together, but in reality we [Palestinians in Israel] are second-class citizens”.

Follow Patrick O. Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_ 

Source: Al Jazeera