Tempers flared earlier this month when the Knesset Constitution Law and Justice Committee approved a highly controversial bill that would allow rural villages in Israel to become 'gated communities', legally entitled to restrict admittance to only those people that they say fit in with the socio-cultural character of the community. In conversations, the bill's co-sponsors - Kadima MKs Shai Hermesh and Yisrael Hasson, and committee chair David Rotem of Yisrael Beiteinu - the legislators reveal some of the rationale behind their proposed law, and respond to some of the criticisms directed at it from left-wing MKs and civil liberties advocates.
Kadima MK Shai Hermesh characterizes life in a small community far from the center of the country as one of hardship. "When people decide to take a decision to move from the centre of Tel Aviv to live far away... they should have some good reasons to take such a decision. It’s not so easy to move 300 kilometers from Tel Aviv, to live in a isolated small community, not having any real services, cinemas, theaters, concert halls, malls."
Certainly, city living has its perks and pluses: access to employment opportunities, cultural activities, romantic liaisons. But there are also many advantages to having a house in the country: less noise and air pollution, excellent access to open spaces, and a safer place to raise children. But Hermesh would like to see that list of attributes include demographic homogeneity, which he considers to be a virtue.
Hermesh says that the primary purposes of the law are to maintain the status quo that has existed since 1948, and to prevent would-be applicants from appealing to the High Court to enforce the country's non-discrimination laws, which would "undermine the unified homogeneity of these small communities," in his words.
"To live in a small community means that the group should have a kind of common culture, they should be able to find a common language. If someone decides to join the community, they should accept the culture and the atmosphere and the values, in addition to what is expected from a regular citizen in Tel Aviv.
“So Tel Aviv can accept all kinds of people, a very wide range of citizens, but in a small community it could cause a lot of trouble... It's about, can you live quietly, peacefully with your neighbors? Or do you disturb them?"
Hermesh claims that this demographic homogeneity serves as a social lubricant. "You share with your neighbor much more than you share when you're living on the 20th floor of an apartment building in Tel Aviv, where you just meet in the corridor, and say shalom, or maybe you don't even say shalom. Here you are engaged with [your neighbors] in a much wider set of interactions."
Bill co-sponsor and fellow Kadima MK Yisrael Hasson agrees with this sentiment. "These small communities that are far from the center of the country, they are on the periphery, where people's dependence on one another is much greater, where the quality of life is dependent on the social make-up of the population."
The bill's third co-sponsor, Yisrael Beiteinu MK David Rotem, believes that demographic homogeneity is more than a privilege, but a guaranteed right.
"In a democratic state, each one of us has got to be allowed to choose who he wants to be his neighbors. I want to live next to you, and I don’t want to live next to someone else, because I know that your education and your background and your behavior is exactly as mine, and therefore I want to live next to you. And if I make a community settlement, and we say we want to live among our people, we have to be able to decide who is coming into this organization." He explains how this living arrangement makes following a strict religious regimen easier to enforce.
"If I am an Orthodox Jew, I want to live with people that are Shabbat-observant, because I want to make sure that if my son wants to go to visit his friend on Shabbat, he shouldn’t see someone turning on the television. That’s not discrimination," he says.
But Rotem also maintains that the basis for a community's homogeneity need not be race or religion, and that Orthodox Judaism is not the only lifestyle choice whose practitioners would benefit from the ability to define their own admission criteria. To illustrate his point, Rotem tells the story of an all-vegetarian village in the Galilee called Amirim.
"There is a community in Israel that only allows vegetarians to join. Now let's say that I am a strict vegetarian, and that I want my children to be the same. Now, I want to be sure that if one day I am late, and they are going to a friend next door, they can eat supper and they won't get eat meat, because I believe that people shouldn’t eat meat. I want to have that right. I think that if a community will say that only vegetarians can be accepted, it's not discrimination, it's quite okay."
Nathan Ohn-Bar, who has lived in Amirim for 34 years, and has served as the village council head for the last ten of those, explains what originally motivated him to move to Amirim. "My wife, she didn’t live in a vegetarian community. She lived in a regular neighborhood in Jerusalem, went to a regular school, and she told me about all the problems at school. You sit in class, and people eat meat and chicken, and she ate food that was different from everyone else. We liked the idea that at least for the first few years of our children's lives - because the school here is for the whole region, it’s not a vegetarian school, but at least for the kindergarten years - when you go to the central park in the village, nobody will take out a steak and eat it."
Ohn appreciates that he is able to wield some measure of control over what activities take place in more than just his own home, but in public places in the village as well.
"The fact that no one around me will barbeque is great. I can’t stand the smell of barbecues. It’s a great environment for us. If you go to the grocery store here, no meat, no chicken, no fish products at all. It’s not vegan unfortunately, but still it’s vegetarian. When you go to the park for community events - we celebrate the holidays together, Yom Ha’atzmaut, Yom HaShoah - vegetarian food is served. Even the people that rent here have to respect the fact that they live in a vegetarian village, they’re not allowed to have barbecues in the public areas or in their private yard," Ohn says, though he notes, "They can do anything they want in their own houses - I can’t force them there."
Having agency over more than only one's own body and private property - but also over the public places that we navigate, and over the activities that occur therein - is a precious privilege. "That privilege," Hasson said, "I am not willing to allow them [potential applicants] to undermine it. I'm not willing to let that right be taken away from them."
But could these privileges be enjoyed, without infringing upon the basic rights of others? Would Shai Hermesh agree to amend the bill to specifically state that acceptance committees may not discriminate on the basis of race or religion, marital status or sexual orientation, to prevent discrimination in housing that has historically been perpetrated on the weaker segments of society: Arabs, queers, single parents, disabled people?
"I don't apologize! Never! I should state that I won't discriminate against Arabs? I should state that I won't discriminate against homosexuals? I should state that I won't discriminate against single mothers, that I'm not going to discriminate against the handicapped?!" Hermesh replies angrily."Not at all! Because I don't discriminate," he says emphatically, using the personal pronoun 'I' throughout.
But how could Hermesh deny that kibbutzim and moshavim and small-scale settlements with every possible kind of economic arrangement have traditionally shut out members of minority groups, and those that don't fit their cookie-cutter molds, regardless of how eager those people may have been to comply with the communities' family values?
So how many Arab Israelis and Ethiopian Israelis live in his kibbutz? How many single moms and gay dads live in Kfar Aza?
"I've never checked it, that's not the issue. Once I tell you we're not going to discriminate, the issue of whether someone is homosexual or not homosexual doesn't exist. We never ask anyone what his sexual trends are. It's not a question that appears on any list."
But a policy of don't-ask-don't-tell is far from a policy of non-discrimination. And it definitely isn't going to help you out very much if you apply to enter, sitting next to your same-sex partner. Or if you have dark skin.
"Now you want me to put a list of 30, 40, 100, 150 criteria? I'm not this, I'm not that! Well, I'm not that!"
Asked point-blank if he would accept a homosexual as a neighbor, Hermesh has a direct answer: "No, I don't want to live with them.”
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has written the legislation's co-sponsor David Rotem, in his capacity as chair of the Constitution Law and Justice Committee, slamming the bill. ACRI says that the candidate screening process outlined by the bill would give villages "a right to pick and choose their neighbors as they see fit, and a way to make sure that 'undesired' people do not join 'their' settlement." Here ACRI puts the word 'their' in quotation marks, because in most cases village land is not purchased, and community infrastructure is not paid for, by residents, but rather by government grant.
The exclusionary principle "primarily applies to Israeli Arabs," says ACRI, but would affect others, "according to the tastes of the founding nucleus of each settlement."
ACRI claims that the bill's language is so vague that it would even allow villages to reject potential candidates based on their personal political opinions.
Hasson points out that housing discrimination in the Arab sector is even more acute: there, admission isn't only decided on the basis of race or religion, but also by tribe.
"The sale of land in the Arab villages is to the children of the villagers. And even among the children of the villagers, the land is divided amongst them according to clan; you cannot get in there."
But Hasson has no problem in principle with the way that lands are distributed in Arab villages, because he believes that it's better for Arabs and Jews to live on the land separately.
"I think that this is a good thing, it's really good," he says. "This way, you can make sure there is enough space for the community you want to live in."
Hermesh rejects any accusations of anti-Arab discrimination, and references the settlement patterns of Arab Israelis to justify the policy that he proposes, the right of communities to self-select their members.
"No, excuse me, it's not discrimination. I accept the right of the Muslims in Um al-Fahm to live in a Muslim city. I don't force any of them to leave if they don't want to," he says. "It's a different culture, a different religion. We will live together in the same country, with the same rights and with the same demands, but we should not be mixed together, when that mixture doesn't create any positive value, only problems," says Hermesh. "So, don't blame me for any racism. Don't blame me for any discrimination, because I accept it in Rahat, I accept it in Um al-Fahm."
Rotem, too, believes that segregated settlements - all-Jewish towns and all-Arab villages - could be “separate but equal.”
"Now everyone can make such settlements. He has to apply, he gets land, and he builds for his people. Therefore, it can be Arab, it can be Christian, it can be ultra-Orthodox, it can be Orthodox, it can be secular, it can be Reform, it can be Conservative. Everyone can make his own city. But I want to live with people that I know got the same education as I got, served in the same army, are living in the same style that I live in. And therefore, I want those people to be allowed to decide who is coming in, and who is not coming in."
But the “separate but equal” concept does not mean that just anyone 'can make his own city - certainly not Arabs. Ninety-three percent of the land in Israel is owned by the government, the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency, and they only lease land to Jews.
"In small communities of 500 families or less, I think they should be able to decide for themselves" who can become a community member, says the vegetarian Ohn. But he doesn't candy-coat the racism that may result.
"I know this may permit discrimination against Arabs. You know they don't allow new villages to be created anymore in the Galilee, this is it," he says. "If the MKs that are proposing this law were honest, they would say, 'We support this bill, but at the same time, we are supporting bills that would allow Arab villages to grow, give them more land.'"
The cost-benefit analysis of demographic homogeneity has never been calculated in Israel. Having a lot more in common with all of your neighbors may very well help people survive and thrive in frontier communities. But encouraging the development of such insular identities may also contribute to group-think and exacerbate the growing rifts in Israeli society that will take great pains to mend.
And even if socio-cultural homogeneity is desirable in and of itself, is it practically possible in an imperfect world, where people have a propensity to hoard privilege?
"In the end, you have to ask yourself a simple question," says Yisrael Hasson. "Do people have the right to organize themselves? If they do, then let's ensure that they don't utilize that right to exploit others."
In the days to come, the Knesset will vote to decide whether Hasson's bill strikes that delicate balance, or whether it misses the mark.
Philip Kleinfeld, Riva Gold and Anne Ennis also contributed to this article.
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