Redrawing Israel's Municipal Borders

A change in the areas of jurisdiction would entail an original political creation, bringing about radical societal change and resolving lingering social tensions.

120,000 marching to 'social justice' protest in Tel Aviv, July 30, 2011 (Tal Cohen)
Tal Cohen

For decades before Daphni Leef, shouldering her tent, betook herself with estimable determination to Rothschild Boulevard, the term “social justice” was in wide use by veteran social activists, involved members of academe, Mizrahi activists, neighborhood agitators and social-change organizations in the voluntary sector. They set in motion the social-protest movement in Israel, amplified the voices of the weakened and warned against the erosion of the middle class.

In the public and media discourse, the heyday of the term is associated with the moment when social injustice began to affect those who had not traditionally suffered from its manifestations – namely, the young members of the Jewish-Israeli middle class, most of them identified with the hegemonic consciousness.

One fine day, they noticed that the possibility of realizing the Israeli economic dream – not to mention a life of dignity, social rights, well-being and decent employment – was increasingly slipping away from their grasp. Suddenly, that old-fashioned phrase, “social justice,” tasted like pure honey on their lips.
“The people demand social justice” became the message of the summer of 2011, and it looked as though the Jewish state had been founded anew on Rothschild Boulevard.

These days, almost everyone loves to love social justice and speak in praise of it. But there is one very significant area of social justice in which “everyone” is largely silent: land. What? Land? Distribution? Justice? Hey, don’t we have enough troubles already? Let’s first organize equality of the burden, get the ultra-Orthodox into the army, reduce centralism, engage in a dialogue with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and stride confidently, with strong governance on our side, into the next election.

It’s not by chance that the first group to give expression to the salient connection between justice and land was Sephardi Democratic Rainbow (Keshet Hamizrahi, in Hebrew), which flourished among veteran social-justice activists. That group petitioned the High Court of Justice on this issue more than a decade ago. The High Court decision to put a stop to the runaway rezoning of land in the kibbutzim and moshavim was a formative moment in the equality discourse.

Now, years after the court’s ruling, the time seems to be at hand to reorder things again by redrawing the country’s municipal boundaries and addressing the severe planning obstacles that deprive outlying towns and many other localities of the justice that “everyone” likes to talk about.

A change in the distorted balance of relations between the municipalities and the local councils, on the one hand, and the regional councils on the other, as part of which the municipal boundaries of the far-flung towns (built in the 1950s to house immigrants) would be expanded, is a necessary condition for economic growth in weakened areas.

More than 90 percent of Israel’s population is concentrated in cities and towns, while the regional councils control about 80 percent of the state’s land. Land is an outstanding economic and cultural resource, and the inequality in its historic distribution affects the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of Israelis.

The Negev town of Yeruham, for example, has a population of 7,600 but only 34,000 dunams (8,500 acres) of land at its disposal; whereas the neighboring Ramat Negev Regional Council extends across 4.3 million dunams (1,075,000 acres) – more than 22 percent of Israel’s area – but has a population of only 5,000 people.

The centralization of landholding in Israel is an absurdity unparalleled anywhere in the world. It is also a protracted failure with catastrophic social consequences. In the past 20 years, farmland has been rezoned and become a resource for development, a means to increase tax revenues and enrich exclusivist groups in Israel at the expense of the majority.

The present configuration of the country’s boundaries also affects the value of the assets held in public and private possession, the ecological balance, infrastructure development, the quality of the environment, and the sense of identity and feeling of belonging of significant groups in Israel, which continue to be perceived as mere adjuncts to the national ethos.

A change in the areas of jurisdiction entails a new and original political creation that will bring about a radical societal change and resolve lingering social tensions. This issue should be the springboard for the next social-justice protest movement and the new political order that will emerge in its wake. It doesn’t require hundreds of thousands. Or moving performances of songs, either.

Dr. Merav Alush Levron is a researcher and lecturer in communications and cinema at Tel Aviv University, and a social activist.