Knesset Passes Bill Distinguishing Between Muslim and Christian Arabs

Critics slam law as effort to 'divide and conquer' Israeli Arab population.

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The Knesset on Monday approved a controversial law, whose ultimate aim, according to its sponsor, is to distinguish between Muslim and Christian Arab citizens and to heighten involvement of Christians in Israeli society.

Critics slammed the law, sponsored by MK Yariv Levin (Likud), for constituting an attempt to “divide and conquer” the country's Arab population – an allegation Levin seemed to confirm in a recent newspaper interview.

The law demands what initially seems to be a minor change in the makeup of the public advisory council which is appointed under the 1988 Equal Employment Opportunities Law. It would expand that panel from five representatives of groups that promote workers’ rights, to 10 members, which will now include Christian, Muslim, Druze and Circassian representatives.

The law passed by 31 to six votes, even though Equal Employment Opportunity commissioner Tziona Koenig-Yair clarified in a committee discussion of the legislation two weeks ago that she opposed it and that she viewed it as superfluous – “in the same way that I wouldn’t be interested in separate representation for Lithuanian Haredim and [Sephardi] Haredim,” she said. “Furthermore, there are no groups promoting employment for different sectors in the Arab population per se, only for the Arab population as a whole.”

Haim Katz, chairman of the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee, introduced the law in the plenum on Monday, saying, “The aim is to look after populations that have a hard time in the labor market and to give them a representation on the advisory committee.”

But opposition MKs weren’t convinced by this. “Perhaps we should also divide the Jewish population into Poles, Yemenites and Moroccans?” asked Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-On. Meretz MK Issawi Freij added, “We are essentially in a situation where an effort is being made to try to define the state according to religions. Here they are trying to say that there’s a difference between Muslim Arabs and Christian Arabs.”

The law passed after several weeks of heated debate in the labor committee. In the last discussion two weeks ago, Balad party chairman MK Jamal Zahalka criticized Levin. “Arab rights don’t interest Yariv Levin,” he said. “There’s no specific Christian or Druze employment problem, only a problem of the general Arab population. Levin is interested in cruelly dividing the Arab public, which is oppressed as it is. We will not be his lackeys.”

In an interview Levin gave to the Maariv newspaper a few weeks ago, he in fact declared his intention to formulate legislation that would create a distinction between the Christian Arab population (which he insisted on calling merely "Christian") and the Muslim population.

In the interview, Levin said, “My legislation will provide separate representation and separate attention to the Christian public, separate from the Muslim Arabs … This is a historic and important move that could help balance the State of Israel, and connect us and the Christians, and I’m being careful about not calling them Arabs because they aren’t Arabs.”

According to Levin, “Christians can be directors of government companies, they will get separate representation in the local authorities, they will get equal employment opportunities. The first law I will pass will give Christians representation on the advisory council of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.”

He added: "We and the Christians have a lot in common. They’re our natural allies, a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the country from within. On the other hand, there’s a message here: We will use an iron hand and demonstrate zero tolerance of Arabs who are liable to identify with the terror of the Palestinian state.”

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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