Equal protection under Israeli law

Posted: Jul 16, 2002 12:00 AM
I have written extensively about the Middle East, expressing my strong support for the state of Israel and talking about my great hopes for democracy and freedom in the Arab World. That's why I was saddened and concerned recently to see a move by some members of the far right of the Israeli Likud Party to adopt a proposal that would flagrantly discriminate against Arab Israeli citizens. Under a proposal sent to the Knesset by the Sharon Cabinet, the government, which owns 90 percent of all land in Israel, would be authorized to allow land allocations by the Jewish Agency to be earmarked for Jewish-only communities. The reaction to the bill was so strong that only one day after it was proposed, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was prompted to delay action on it, and within a week the Cabinet voted to shelve it. The provision, which would make it possible for the Israeli government to designate communities in which no Arab Israeli citizen would be permitted to own land or a house, was defended by its supporters as necessary to "preserve the unique character of Jewish identity and communities." One newspaper editorial in Harretz contended that the measure is "necessary to preserve the characters of towns based on uniform ideological or communal lifestyle that requires the residents' cooperation." The government's proposal drew upon a previous ruling by the High Court of Justice (Israel's Supreme Court) that permitted the establishment of a town exclusively for (Arab) Bedouins, due to their unique traditions. This has an unhealthy ring to it of "separate but equal," which clearly rang sourly to many Jews and produced a groundswell of opposition within Israel. The bill was immediately denounced in Israel by prominent figures on all sides of the political spectrum who refuse to give in to the regional tensions that threaten to drag Israel away from its founding principle of equal rights under law. The Labor Party declared that they would vote against the bill when in the Knesset. The son of former Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin son ended three years of public silence since resigning from politics to condemn the bill as "undemocratic" and "unworthy." In Sharon's own government, Attorney General Elyakin Rubinstein opposed the bill, referring to Israel's declaration of independence, which enshrines its commitment to freedom and equality, and explicitly mentions its Arab citizens: "We call upon the Arab inhabitants of the state of Israel to play their part in the development of the state, with full and equal citizenship." That is why, when Minister Dan Meridor also opposed the bill, he said, "Precisely because we are a Jewish state, we must oppose such laws of discrimination." The New York Times and the BBC were quick to report on the bill, misrepresenting its intent to "bar Arabs from buying land in Jewish communities" and implying that Israel was instituting a system of enforced segregation between Jews and Arabs. This is, of course, not true: The bill did not forbid Jews and Arabs from living together. The coverage did not mention how Israel's Basic Laws, which serve as its constitution, guarantee equal rights for its Arab citizens, making it unlikely that the Israeli high court would have upheld the bill had it even passed in the Knesset. The commitment to equal rights was clearly affirmed by the high court in a March 2000 verdict, where it defended the right of an Arab family to buy land in a Jewish village that had sought to bar them. Referring to equality as a "fundamental value of the state of Israel," the court elaborated on the social importance of this principle: "The need to maintain equality is vital for a society and the consensus on which it is built." The Zionist dream of a state where Jews would always be welcome and free was, and remains, inclusive. It is true that it remains more of a dream than a reality for Israel's Arab citizens. While they have equal legal rights, they are far from enjoying equal opportunity and do face discrimination. Nonetheless, the rights they enjoy in Israel are far greater than their rights in Arab nations. Blacks, women and American Indians in the United States have had to fight for their place in the American dream. So, too, are Arab Israelis having to fight for their place in the Zionist dream. But they are not alone, as the opposition to this bill showed. Jews are vocally and passionately joining them in this fight. And because Israel is a functioning democracy with a free press, political parties and a separate and independent judiciary, those voices were heard. That's why the government was forced to back off on a bill that so egregiously contradicts the spirit of the state of Israel. See why I'm such an optimist?