This past week, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a big step towards improving the lives of minority communities in Israel. His government passed a plan worth 15 billion NIS (nearly 4 billion U.S. dollars) to invest in the infrastructure of Arab municipalities (see: Gov’t approves NIS 15 billion to invest in Arab municipalities).
The plan is designed to narrow the significant gaps that exist in areas like transportation, education and housing that exist between minority communities and the Jewish majority. By pushing through this program, Netanyahu has reaffirmed Israel’s commitment to the fair treatment of its non-Jewish ethnic and religious minorities.
Unfortunately, the media and many leaders in the international community have made Israel look like the worst place on Earth to be if you’re an Arab or part of some other minority group. The truth is, however, that Israel is light years ahead of its neighbors in the Middle East in terms of protecting the rights and interests of minorities.
In fact, Israel may even be ahead of some countries in the West when it comes to the treatment of minorities. For example, the Arab citizens of Israel enjoy on average a much higher standard of living than most of their kinsmen in the Arab states. This isn’t to say, however, that Israel can’t improve the lot of minorities any more than it already has. Indeed, there are plenty of other steps that Netanyahu and his government can and should take to improve the status and well-being of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens.
One major issue that comes to mind in regards to discrimination against Israel’s non-Jewish citizens is the issue of land rights. The fact of the matter is that the way land is allocated to the country’s citizens is unfair to those who are not Jewish. For example, the government bodies charged with making and administering land policy are not required to have non-Jewish representation.
The law does require, however, that half of the members of the council which heads the Israel Lands Administration be from the Jewish National Fund (JNF). The JNF, like the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization, is a quasi-national institution that pre-dates the State of Israel itself. The representation of the JNF in government institutions like the Israel Lands Administration is very problematic for minorities because it is accountable exclusively to Jews — and not just the Jewish citizens of Israel, but rather Jews around the world.
Hence, giving an organization like the JNF representation in a regulatory body that determines land policy in the state is not just unfair to Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, but it also gives undue power to foreign Jews who are not citizens of Israel, hence compromising Israeli sovereignty. I should also add that as the law stands in Israel now, state land cannot be transferred to anyone, except to the Jewish National Fund, which gives residency rights on its land exclusively to Jews and no one else. In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that the JNF’s practice of selling its land only to Jews was illegal, however, the ruling did not set a nation-wide precedent.
Moreover, a law passed in 2011 has given some communities another way to prevent non-Jews from putting down roots in the form of admission committees, which can reject a potential resident if he or she is “unsuitable to the social life of the community…or the social and cultural fabric of the town (see: “Admissions Committees Law” — Cooperative Societies Ordinance – Amendment No. 8).
In my humble opinion, the next step that Netanyahu and his government should take to improve the status and well-being of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens is to kick the JNF and the rest of the quasi-national, dinosaur organizations out of the state’s land and planning institutions and ensure fair representation for minority communities.
Another step that I think Netanyahu and his government should take is to eliminate legal discrimination based on non-Jewish citizens’ refusal to accept the definition of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.” I would submit that non-Jewish citizens need only recognize the State of Israel, period. Simply recognizing the State of Israel implies recognizing a Jewish state, because Israel as a non-Jewish state wouldn’t be Israel. Hence, I don’t believe it is necessary for the Israeli government to outlaw participation of political parties or withdraw government funding from minority institutions just because they choose to commemorate the so-called Nakba and don’t accept the government’s definition of what Israel is.
If political parties, organizations or institutions actively call for the destruction of Israel, that’s a totally different story and they should be punished to the full extent of the law. But having another opinion on how Israel should be defined or how its history should be defined is not a just basis for discrimination. Besides, there are parties and politicians currently sitting in Netanyahu’s government from the Haredi parties who surely do not accept Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, because of their belief that a Jewishness and modern democracy don’t mix — yet I don’t see anyone trying to ban Haredim or their parties from participating in Israeli politics, nor do I see funding reduced for Haredi institutions that teach anything but democracy and equal rights. Does anyone else see the double standard here, because I certainly do.
I’ve studied Israel’s policies towards its non-Jewish minorities for years and have written more on the subject of minority rights in Israel than I can remember, as have many well-known scholars and political figures. I have only highlighted a couple of issues in this post that I believe are the most pressing in regards to Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, but of course this is not the whole story.
If you want to know more about Israeli policies that some of the country’s non-Jewish citizens claim are discriminatory, please visit The Discriminatory Laws Database as published by Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. Please note, however, that Adalah’s views are not necessarily my own. For example, the organization implies that Israel’s flag and coat of arms should be changed because they exclude non-Jewish citizens. While I agree that Israel should do what it can to ensure full equality between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, I do not support the notion of dumping our Jewish national identity, because to do so would be to destroy Israel itself.