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THE WORLD

Racism Debate Flares in Israel

Mideast: Plan to ban sale of land to Arab citizens hits at heart of the controversy over Zionism versus democracy. Sharon endorses legislation.

July 09, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has endorsed a proposed law that would allow Jews to bar Arab citizens of Israel from purchasing homes or living in many Israeli communities, a move that has touched off a divisive national debate.

The attempt to legalize "Jews-only" towns was swiftly criticized by numerous Israeli politicians and human rights groups, who said it was a discriminatory and racist proposal. Supporters praised the bill for protecting what they called the essence of Zionism.

The debate goes to the heart of Israel's existential contradiction: How can it be both a Jewish state and a democratic state?

"Israel is the state of the Jewish people," said Cabinet minister Dan Meridor, who opposed the legislation, "but because it is a Jewish state, it must not practice against its non-Jewish citizens the kind of discrimination to which Jews were subjected in the diaspora."

Drafted by members of an ultranationalist right-wing party, the bill comes in response to a landmark decision by the Israeli Supreme Court in March 2000 that said Arab citizens were equally entitled to purchase, lease or live on state-owned land. The court ruled on a petition from Adel Kaadan, an Israeli Arab who had been turned down repeatedly in his efforts to buy a home in an all-Jewish community in the Galilee region of northern Israel.

Right-wing and religious parties in Sharon's coalition endorsed the proposed law in a closed Cabinet session Sunday, with most members from the center-left Labor Party absent. When it was publicized Monday, the decision triggered a firestorm.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said his Labor Party would "fight with all its power against the racist decision"--even if it means quitting the government.

The bill still faces legal hurdles in the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, before it becomes law.

Assigning land for Jewish-only housing opens Israel to criticism at a time when its reputation in the Arab and Muslim worlds is especially low because of Israel's war with the Palestinians, Meridor said.

Education Minister Limor Livnat, a member of Sharon's Likud Party and the legislation's main proponent in the Cabinet, said it was a mistake to see the decision as racist. Instead, it would protect Israeli security by helping to ensure a Jewish majority in the heavily Arab Galilee, she said.

"This does not stem at all from discrimination, rather from the main basis of Zionism: the return of the Jewish people to its land," Livnat said.

"If Zionism is racism, then we are all in trouble," Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin, also of Likud, told Israeli radio.

"We are trying to convince the whole world there is no gap between Judaism and democracy, but when there is a conflict, everyone has to remember there is only one Jewish state. We have to keep it secure [for its] future.... This is the state for the Jewish people, not the state for all its citizens. That has to be obvious."

Israeli Atty. Gen. Elyakim Rubinstein opposed the legislation, saying it was unnecessary and would further strain Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. If the new measure does become law, it could be challenged before the Supreme Court.

About 1 million Arabs live in Israel and hold Israeli citizenship, roughly 20% of the population. They have long complained that predominantly Arab areas are given inferior state services, their schools are underfinanced and their roads go unrepaired.

Kaadan, the original plaintiff, works as an emergency room nurse in a hospital in the Israeli city of Hadera. He was eager to escape the poverty and neglect of his Israeli Arab hometown, Baqa al Gharbiya, where his three daughters had to walk in streets filled with sewage and attend a school contaminated with asbestos. But the governing board of nearby Kazir, a town of manicured lawns and neat fences, repeatedly rejected Kaadan's application to purchase a plot.

With the help of the Assn. for Civil Rights in Israel, Kaadan sued in 1995. Five years later, the high court ruled in his favor, citing Israel's declaration of independence, which enshrines social and political equality regardless of religion, and declaring that the state cannot discriminate between Jews and Arabs in the allocation of land.

The state controls most of the land in Israel. Most non-urban land is distributed by the government or government-designated agencies; the ruling does not apply to the sale of private property in most cities.

With its ruling, the court challenged the very land-distribution policy on which the Jewish state was founded more than half a century ago.

The right, led by Knesset member Haim Druckman of the National Religious Party, quickly vowed to write a law that would bypass the ruling.

Despite their legal victory, Kaadan and his family still have not been allowed to move to Kazir. Speaking Monday in reaction to the Cabinet's endorsement of the proposed law, Kaadan expressed disappointment and accused the ministers of forgetting the lessons of equality and coexistence espoused by the founders of Zionism.

"Even Herzl didn't mind having an Arab minister," Kaadan said, referring to Zionism's founder, Theodor Herzl.

The head of Kazir's governing board, Dubi Sandrov, said the community was trying to preserve its Jewish character. He told Israeli radio that "political elements," including members of an Israel-based Islamic movement, were trying to settle Arabs in Kazir "to push the Jewish population out."

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