Knesset Panel Okays Bill Letting Small Communities Bar Arabs

Bill would allow communities to reject candidates according to 'suitability to the community's fundamental outlook,' effectively enabling them to reject individuals on almost any basis.

The Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee unanimously approved a bill for second and third readings yesterday that would give absorption committees in small communities the right to reject candidates who do not meet specific selection criteria. The bill would allow communities to reject candidates according to "suitability to the community's fundamental outlook," effectively enabling them to reject individuals based on ethnicity, sex, religion and socioeconomic status.

The bill - approved after one committee member, MK Talab al-Sana (United Arab List-Ta'al ), walked out of the meeting in protest - will be presented before the Knesset plenum at some point in the next few weeks.

Adel Kaadan
Moran Mayan / Jini

Opponents have fervently condemned the bill for its perceived discrimination against Arabs. Yesterday, however, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said the legislation would harm not only Israel's Arab citizens, but a range of underprivileged groups including Jews of Mizrahi origin, single mothers and gay parents.

Gil Gan-Mor, an attorney who heads ACRI's housing rights division, said yesterday, "The MKs expressed unequivocal support for a bill that perpetuates discrimination. Absorption committees in small settlements and kibbutzim received a kashrut certificate today to continue devaluing the status of Arabs, the ultra-Orthodox, Mizrahim [Jews of Middle Eastern descent], the disabled, gays, lesbians, single mothers and anyone else not deemed 'suitable,' even in cases where these are suburban communities without any distinguishing characteristics."

The bill includes a list of criteria absorption committees may follow in accepting candidates. Some sections contain wording that could be broadly interpreted, such as sanctioning a candidate's refusal due to his or her "unsuitability to the community's social and cultural fabric."

The bill states, however, that absorption committees "may not refuse a candidate only on the basis of race, religion, sex, nationality or disability." One of the bill's sponsors, MK Israel Hasson (Kadima ), said yesterday that selection criteria are under the supervision of the Attorney General's Office, and therefore are unlikely to engender racial discrimination.

The controversial legislation has already passed preliminary and first readings in the Knesset plenum, and subsequent committee meetings dealt primarily with technical reservations submitted by MKs and justice system officials.

One official recommended adding riders prohibiting discrimination based on country of origin or sexual orientation in the selection process, and another suggested designating the district court system as appellate courts in cases of perceived bias. Nearly all the reservations and clarifications were ultimately rejected by the committee.

The legislation approved yesterday represents a combination of two bills, one sponsored by Hasson and fellow Kadima MK Shai Hermesh, and another by committee chairman David Rotem of Yisrael Beiteinu.

Amnon Be'eri-Sulitzeanu, director general of the Abraham Fund, a non-profit group that promotes Jewish-Arab coexistence in Israel, said yesterday, "Is being Zionist and Jewish in Israel a unique characteristic for this or that community? These are, after all, the values of 80 percent of communities in Israel. Does that populace need to be protected? Does 80 percent of the population in Israel need to be protected from a single Arab family that seeks to live among them?

"A community under threat needs to have the right to maintain its values vis-a-vis the majority, not the other way around," he said.

Meretz chairman Haim Oron, however, said that he accepts a community's need to protect its distinctive character, whether it be religiously observant, vegan or convalescent.

'Every community needs an Arab'

Tempers flared at the committee meeting as Hermesh, Rotem and MK Uri Orbach (Habayit Hayehudi ) were caught in a televised war of words with Sana and MKs Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta'al ) and Hanna Swaid (Hadash ).

Sana and Tibi decried the bill as a racist attempt to prevent Arabs from living in Jewish communities, and Tibi compared the measure to anti-Jewish legislation passed in World War II-era Europe. "We won't participate in this criminal legislation," he told committee members. "You've crossed the line."

Tensions peaked when Rotem told the Arab legislators, "In my opinion, every Jewish community should have at least one Arab. What would happen if my refrigerator stops working on Shabbat?"

Hermesh told committee members, "Opponents denounce this bill as if it is racist legislation presented entirely in bad faith. But it is precisely bad faith - and even rank hypocrisy - that is being shown by those same opponents. These bleeding hearts don't protest discrimination even when the Israel Lands Administration director sets aside thousands of lots in Arab communities to locals alone, and many of the same people are spearheading the fight against the Haredization of secular neighborhoods and communities like Kiryat Hayovel and Ramat Aviv."

A study conducted by the legal rights group Adalah found that the bill would apply to 695 locales - 647 agricultural communities (kibbutzim and moshavim ) and 48 communal settlements (yishuvim kehilati'im ) - which together comprise 68.3 of all communities in Israel. These small communities (all contain 500 or fewer households ) share the common feature of requiring that candidates be approved by selection committees.

In practice, the group said, the bill would mean that Arab citizens would be barred from living on most of the country's state-owned land.

The non-profit group Gush Shalom said it intends to file a petition against the measure to the High Court of Justice.