Israel's Heritage Ministry Tells Court It Wouldn't Support Projects for Minorities

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The shack of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, in Sde Boker, Israel.
The shack of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, in Sde Boker, Israel. Credit: Moshe Gilad

The Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Ministry has told the High Court of Justice that it funds the development and conservation only of Jewish heritage sites and not of other communities.

In its response to a petition demanding equitable funding of such sites, the Heritage Ministry said that other government ministries finance the heritage sites of minorities, and that it funds only projects associated with the “national heritage of the Jewish people in its land.” No date has been set yet for the court hearing.

Last December, the ministry published a call for funding applications, inviting the public to suggest heritage sites it could develop and conserve. Eight hundred fifty million shekels ($264 million) was allocated to this project, which came in the wake of a government resolution in 2010. When the Heritage Ministry was established in 2015, it assumed responsibility for the project. The Emek Shaveh NGO and the Arab Culture Association, as well as academics working to preserve the heritage sites of the Arab community in Israel, approached the ministry, arguing that it was not allocating funds to minorities.

According to activists, a survey of the sites supported by the ministry shows that for over a decade it had allocated funds only to Jewish sites, such as the cemetery in Kinneret, the heritage of Jews in Peki’in, a Druze town in the Galilee with an old, small Jewish presence and synagogue, an old synagogue in Deir Aziz in the Golan Heights and the City of David, as well as 300 other projects belonging to Jews.

The activists also claimed that the call for proposals included criteria that do not allow minorities to contend for funding, such as a condition stipulating that a project be related to “the conservation of the national and Zionist heritage,” as well as a preference for sites associated with “a central figure in Zionist history.” There is also preference for sites mentioned in Jewish written sources or with a possibility of being associated with an ancient site known from Jewish sources.

After the ministry rejected their appeal, the activists filed a petition with the High Court. They demand that the ministry also fund heritage sites of minorities and change its criteria for funding. They argue that the descriptions of the ministry’s purview do not mention that it funds only Jewish sites, adding that the call for proposals was also written in Arabic. The activists assert that there is “great discrimination in budgeting,” citing dozens of sites associated with the Arab public but not funded by the state, in Haifa, Ramle, Tel Aviv and other locations.

The ministry’s response, delivered through the State Prosecutor’s Office, said, “The purpose of this plan is to rehabilitate and fortify the infrastructure of national heritage, via government investment in rehabilitation and conservation of tangible and non-tangible assets that express the national heritage of the Jewish people in its land.”

The state further wrote that the ministry indeed funds only Jewish heritage sites, but that minorities are not discriminated against. “The ministry’s activities do not cover all aspects of government funding for heritage sites. Other ministries allocate funds for the conservation of minority heritage sites.” The state prosecution provided examples of government resolutions in 2015-2016 that called for investing millions of shekels in minority heritage and cultural sites. Furthermore, say state attorneys, the Ministry for Social Equality is about to present a multi-year plan that will promote the culture and heritage of minorities.

The petitioners said that in their view, the Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Ministry should be what its name indicates, a ministry responsible for any heritage. “Hundreds of sites that do not tell a Jewish story are in grave physical condition that requires ongoing conservation and maintenance. Otherwise, they will forever disappear from this country’s scenery, taking with them the country’s past. The country’s residents deserve to know about the past of other nations who lived and still live in this country. Their heritage is part of our own.”

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