A controversial bill allowing certain small communities to screen potential residents is coming up tomorrow for second and third readings in the Knesset. Opponents of the bill, sponsored by MK Shai Hermesh, his Kadima colleague MK Israel Hasson and MK David Rotem of Yisrael Beiteinu, describe it as racist and discriminatory and say it could give those communities carte blanche to ban residents they deem undesirable, such as Arabs, new immigrants, gay couples or single-parent families.
MK Hermesh, is the screening committee bill racist?
This bill is certainly not a racist bill. If someone like me, who defines himself as being on the left side of Kadima, who was active in Peace Now, has been a kibbutz member for 45 years and is active in a wide variety of public activities [is sponsoring it], I ask you to rely on me about this. I am as far from having a racist worldview, or a nationalistic worldview of the Avigdor Lieberman type, as east is from west. I think, moreover, that a culture of communities with screening committees is becoming popular today in the Western countries. There are neighborhoods in the United States and Europe that represent a homogenous community. That is the difference, for example, between a community and a condominium in the city.
Nevertheless, critics of the bill argue that rejecting people for not fitting into "the social fabric" of the community will make it possible to discriminate against certain groups and keep them from living in a given area.
If critics of the bill were to read it through thoroughly, they would surely find in paragraph 6 a clear statement that the bill prevents the committees from rejecting people on the basis of a long list of parameters, including race, religion and sexual orientation. There was not a thing that distinguishes between one person and another that was not included in this bill, either at our initiative or in the additions that were made later. Moreover, the bill states that an external appeals committee, which doesn't include any of the community residents or their representatives, will be established to discuss controversial cases and to prevent discrimination.
One of the bill's co-sponsors, David Rotem of Yisrael Beiteinu, hinted that the bill was aimed at preventing Arabs from living in Jewish areas. Is that not discrimination?
The problem is that instead of dealing with the substance of the bill, the media have been dealing with the substance of the people. This bill was my initiative at the outset, and only at a later stage did David Rotem of Yisrael Beiteinu decide to co-sponsor it. The fact that Rotem joined in led people to say that this was just one more bill to come off the Lieberman and Co. production line. There were people who said to me in private: "This law is important but the timing makes it inappropriate because it is one more in a series of Lieberman laws. It would be better for you to wait until another time."
From the moment Lieberman's mark was left on the bill, people stopped seeing it as a bill that safeguards the right of someone in a small community to preserve his way of life in the community he has chosen. I was not the one who brought Rotem on as a sponsor. I am not happy with his interpretation or with the way he has expressed himself and exploited his authority as a sponsor of the bill and as the chairman of the Knesset Law, Constitution and Justice Committee, which is discussing it. There's no doubt that his position gave him a more durable platform than most MKs have.
Even if, as you claim, there are sections of the bill that prevent active discrimination, won't such a law hold back certain population groups from applying to live in some places because they fear they'll just be rejected?
I live on Kibbutz Kfar Aza. There is an extension of the kibbutz now that already includes 45 families. All the families went through a screening committee. I don't know of a single case where anyone was rejected on account of the reasons you mentioned.
It is abundantly clear that it is appropriate to demand that candidates view the community as the center of their lives. The demand that a person should join in the community experience is also a basic matter. It's impossible to take a small community and divide it into all kinds of cultures. The difficulty of living in an outlying area is a daily difficulty, and it is not a simple matter. If we don't worry about social cohesion and having the residents care about the community, we will cause these communities substantive harm.
Will the law be passed in its second and third readings tomorrow?
That's a good question. The support for the bill in Kadima is problematic. Labor is not supporting the bill, but the [Labor breakaway] Independence faction is. I presume that the bill will be passed with massive support from the right and dissent from the left. That kind of a vote is most uncomfortable for me.
Your kibbutz was hit Saturday by the mortar barrage fired by Hamas at the Western Negev. Are the government and the Israel Defense Forces doing enough to prevent such attacks?
The security establishment calls the kind of event that took place Saturday a "low-level confrontation." Unlike other times, Hamas specifically chose Purim as the time to shell without a mask and without a disguise, even though during the rest of the year it fires at us while disguising itself as other organizations. The fact that there was no significant [Israeli] response constitutes a declaration to the effect that Israel is giving up its sovereignty over the communities on the border with Gaza.
We have lost a great deal of the deterrent assets that we tried to secure during Operation Cast Lead. People always compare Gaza with the Lebanese border. The criticism over the Lebanon war was fatal, while Cast Lead was widely valued. Look where we are now: The quiet on the Lebanese front has been maintained for five years, while the war of attrition on the border with Gaza has been going on without a stop.
Are there additional steps that can be taken to protect the residents?
The Israeli government has finished building reinforced rooms for 10,000 residents. That is an achievement that I reached as a private citizen when, together with some of the residents, we filed a petition against the Olmert government, when I was an MK in his coalition.
But the security rooms are meant only for communities that are no further than 4.5 kilometers from the fence, because at a distance like that it's impossible to warn of the approach of a Qassam rocket. At a distance of 4.5 kilometers or more, the State of Israel has announced that it is not providing protection, since there is the Iron Dome [missile defense] system. But even though the tests on the system have been completed, the batteries haven't been placed next to the communities, and anyway the IDF doesn't have the 13 batteries that the subcommittee on the subject recommended. I call on them to put the existing batteries in place. The IDF will have the opportunity to test them under live fire.