Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni on Thursday decided to bar Arab construction workers from three kindergartens in the city during school hours, prompting outraged responses from across the Israeli political spectrum.
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Shimoni deflected criticism of his decision on Thursday, saying, "I have nothing against Arab Israelis, they work with us throughout the year and do construction for us."
However, he said, when tensions are high, just as Jews should be prevented from entering the Temple Mount, "by the same measure, I think it is wrong to allow Arab workers into the kindergartens."
Shimoni's decision elicited harsh responses from ministers and lawmakers.
"There is no place for discrimination against Arab Israelis," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "We cannot make generalizations about an entire population based on a small unruly minority. Most Arabs citizens of Israel are law-abiding."
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett said he would work to overturn the decision. "We are experiencing a difficult time, a wave of terror, but we know that 99.9 percent of Arab Israelis are loyal to Israel," he said. "There is a very small minority that is against us. As economy minister, I will not allow any worker to be harmed based on religion or race – this will not happen in Israel."
Interior Minister Gilad Erdan called the Shimoni's decision unacceptable and said he asked officials at the Justice Ministry to look into its legality. "We cannot generalize and tarnish an entire community within Israel," he said, adding that such decision could increase tensions between Israeli Jews and Arabs. "I understand the mayor and citizens' concerns, but we have an army and police to restore security, and municipalities can also safeguard public institutions," he said.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, meanwhile, asked Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to investigate the Ashkelon mayor's decision, saying it "undermines the basic principle of equality and violates the equal opportunity employment law."
Labor Party chairman Isaac Herzog also chimed in, saying, "This is an unacceptable, immoral decision that can only contribute to the atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Even during times of war that have been more difficult than recent days, Israel didn’t adopt steps that discriminate against and deprive the Arabs living among us as equal citizens. Where will we be if we fan the flames between us?"
Herzog added that he expects Israel's leaders to act responsibly, condemn the decision and to work to strengthen "the coexistence and safety of Jews and Arabs in this country.
Meretz leader Zehava Gal-on blasted the move as illegal and unjustified. "I understand perfectly well the fears felt by the parents of Ashkelon, who are afraid of Arab laborers, despite the fact that most of them are citizens, just like them. These parents, like us all, hear government ministers repeatedly equating the terrorists of recent days with any and every Arab. They are being exposed to statements meant to erase the humanity of all Arabs and convince us that they are all potential terrorists, all traitors, and that this conflict is a religious one between all Jews and all Muslims . The role of parents is to fear for their children.... The role of leaders – and I am talking about the Mayor of Ashkelon – is not to choose the easy path, that bows down to incitement and racism."
MK Issawi Freij (Meretz) called on the mayor to retract his decision. "Shimoni's decision to stop Israeli Arabs from working in Ashkelon is the worst kind of racism. Using the shabby excuse of 'sense of security,' Shimoni wants to purge Ashkelon of Arabs and pollute it with anti-Semitic racism," Freij said.
President Reuven Rivlin said that the reactions of both right- and left-wing politicians "send a strong message to both us and the entire world" that Israel's Jewish character goes hand in hand with tis democratic character.
"This is a testament to how we aren't willing to compromise on neither security nor values, even when faced with murderous terror," he said.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said in a statement that "the attempt to bar Israeli citizens from making a living just because they're Arabs goes against our values. Especially at a time like this, we must decry any show of racism and discrimination against Israel's Arabs, or against any person Arab Israelis are citizens with equal rights and we must be strict about this. It is our duty as a state to prevent dangerous vitriol from any direction, and to strive toward integrating the Arab minority in the different sectors in the State of Israel, and avoid steps that can lead to separatism."
The Mossawa Center, which advocates for Arabs citizens of Israel, said it would take Shimoni to court for incitement to violate anti-discrimination labor laws. "If Jews worked in construction, Arabs wouldn’t be employed," the center said in a statement. It added that preventing the Arab Israelis from working would lead to a loss of more than 100 million shekels a day.
Shimoni told Army Radio that the decision was prompted by intense pressure from parents fearing a potential terror attack.
"There are Arab Israelis working in the kindergartens to build secure spaces and we are currently doing large-scale renovations and construction in the kindergartens," he said, adding that he didn’t believe the decision would create such a commotion.
Guards to be posted at kindergartens
Additionally, starting Thursday, armed guards will be posted at the entrance to seven kindergarten complexes accommodating more than 100 children, Shimoni said.
Earlier, Shimoni wrote on his Facebook page: "Although the Public Security Ministry is responsible for placing security guards, I've instructed putting armed guards in every kindergarten complex close to construction sites in which Arabs are employed. Also, in kindergartens where protected rooms are being built by Arab workers, the work will be stopped until further notice."
The funds for the security guards, estimated in the tens of thousands of shekels, was partly donated from abroad, it was revealed.
The city's security director, Effie Mor, said parents who felt their children were unprotected had approached the mayor and himself.
"We discussed the situation with all the relevant city officials and especially the tension among the residents. We've received many calls from mothers afraid for their children, saying they saw a suspicious person near the kindergarten, or reports of workers in construction sites," he said.
The head of the Ashkelon parents' association, however, distanced the organization from the mayor's decision, calling it "unrealistic and populist." In a written statement to the city's parents, she said Shimoni did not confer with the parents' association before making the decision.
Representatives of the city's parents, she said, did request additional resources be allocated toward security in schools and kindergartens, but never mentioned "banishing workers."