Robert L. Wolkoff

We’re a long way from the water fountains

The Book of Bereshit (Genesis) that we have been reading is filled with stories of ethnic conflict, deceit, and violence. In fact, the Bible as a whole is replete with such stories. It makes for painful reading, to be sure, but it does reflect reality. As I’m writing these words, Chanukah is approaching, a classic ethnic conflict if ever there was one. And here in America, there are three major legal controversies brewing: the Rittenhouse trial, where a minor used an AR 15 to kill two and injure one; the Aubery case, where three white men killed an unarmed black jogger; and the indictment of Steve Bannon, for ignoring a subpoena to testify about the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

It should come as no surprise that a similar situation can be found in Israel. If there were to be an ethnic conflict anywhere, it would be there. And the question there, as in America today, and in the time of the Maccabees, and in the Bible is: how do you temper the conflict, lessen the violence, find a better way? Achieve “domestic tranquility?”

When we turn to Israel, we hear something quite disturbing. In the blogosphere it is repeated endlessly, almost verbatim: “Israel has passed over 65 laws that work to privilege its Jewish citizens (and Jewish non-citizens) while dispossessing, displacing and discriminating against non-Jewish populations under its control.”

To my American ears, “discrimination” brings up some pretty horrible images. Separate water fountains. Separate lunch counters. Back of the bus. But, but…none of that matches my experience of Israel. I’ve spent some serious time there. Drank from the same water fountains. Ate in the same restaurants. Rode the same buses. And went to the same schools, shopped in the same shops, visited the same zoos, etc.

So what, exactly, are these 65 discriminatory laws?

It’s easy enough to find out. There’s a nongovernmental organization (an “NGO”) called Adalah—The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, that keeps a data base about these laws. Google it. You’ll find it interesting. Because what they call “discrimination” is not what you and I call discrimination. In fact, the laws they call discriminatory are meant to have the opposite effect, unless you call “domestic tranquility” discrimination. Here are the first 7 laws they list:

  1. A stop and frisk law that allows authorities to act on suspicion of weapon possession, recently amended to include suspicion to commit violence. It “adds to fears that the law will create greater scope for the discriminatory use of these sweeping powers by the police to conduct arbitrary and invasive searches of Palestinians,…” . Well, yes, of course I can understand that, but the law itself is not discriminatory at all. The application of the law must be balanced, to be sure (we had the same issue in NYC, remember?). But how does this contribute to dispossession, etc.? Sounds to me like it contributes to stopping horrific terrorist attacks, like the one that recently killed Eli Kay, z”l.
  2. An anti-terror law that “contains broad and vague definitions of terrorism and terrorist organizations, which may be exploited by the law enforcement authorities to criminalize legitimate political action by Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinian residents of the OPT.” Again, that “may be exploited”? Sure, it may be exploited. Any law can be exploited, if discriminatory intent is there. (Ask a black person driving with a broken taillight in Mississippi). In addition, considering the extraordinary ingenuity of Palestinian terrorist groups (like soaking small metal objects in rat-poison, so that when they are used as shrapnel in bombings it prevents blood clotting in the victims) I’m not sure what definition of terrorism could be “too broad.” The law also allows secret evidence in court—just like U.S. law does.
  3. A law allowing the expulsion of Knesset members for three reasons (1) denial of the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; (2) incitement to racism; and (3) support for armed struggle of an enemy state or a terrorist organization against Israel. I don’t get it. In America, government officials take an oath of office. If they betray it, they get expelled (or at least should, but let’s not go there). These three actions are a violation of the Israeli oath of office: “I commit to be faithful to the State of Israel and to fulfill with devotion my cause in the Knesset.” Nu?
  4. A law that demands that NGOs that receive 50% or more of their funding from foreign governments state that fact in various situations, including in all of their publications, written reports to Knesset members and decision-makers, etc. This is a problem? If a foreign government is using its money to support an NGO that is trying to influence the policy of our government, shouldn’t we know that? If the Iranian, or Russian, or Chinese government is the main source of funding for an “American” “non-governmental” institution, shouldn’t we know that? Here’s Adalah’s take: “The law aims to mark out, harass and incite against human rights organizations that express views critical to the government’s policies.” So the Israelis shouldn’t know if Iran is paying for the party? Spare me.
  5. A mandatory minimum sentence for stone throwers which “fails to account for the individual circumstances of each case.” We all know that mandatory minimum sentencing is problematic. We’ve been reversing it for years in the U.S. But discriminatory? What, exactly could those “individual circumstances” be that would change the picture?
  6. A fine on parents of stone throwers. According to Adalah, only the criminal should be punished. But in America, at least 43 states and DC now have laws against contributing to the delinquency of a minor. So what’s the big deal?
  7. And finally, a law that strips essential procedural safeguards from “security” detainees. I won’t go into the details, but rather focus on the explanation of why this law is “discriminatory.” “While neutral on its face,” writes Adalah, “in practice the law is used almost exclusively against Palestinians, who make up the overwhelming majority of detainees classified as ‘security’ detainees.” So let me get this straight. 4 out of 5 drunk drivers are males. Therefore, DUI laws are discriminatory against men. See?

Keeping a long story short, this isn’t about discrimination at all. This is about attempts to facilitate the violence and chaos advocated by Palestinian terror groups to overwhelm Israeli society—helping terrorists conceal weapons, demanding that Israel reveal “sources and methods” of its intelligence agencies, supporting those who delegitimize and demonize the Jewish state, allowing foreign governmental “outside agitators” to surreptitiously disrupt Israeli society, undercutting the ability of Israel to prevent or punish crimes committed by Palestinians, etc., etc.—and a legitimate refusal of Israeli society to allow it.

Is there a possibility of real abuse? Of course there is. Wherever there is power, there is a possibility of abuse. And exactly what to do about it is less than clear (file under: Guantanamo). It certainly is, and should be, a matter of concern in Israel, in the U.S., and everywhere. And we won’t even begin to go into the travesty of human rights violations under Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. But In Israel we are, thank G-d, a long way from the lunch counter and the water fountain, and don’t let anyone tell you different.

If they do, they’re discriminating—against us.

About the Author
Rabbi Wolkoff serves Congregation Bnai Tikvah in North Brunswick. He has published hundred of articles and lectured internationally on Jewish topics, and has been active both in interfaith work and in the struggle against anti-Semitism, both in the United States and in Sweden, where he served for a decade. He is a JNF Rabbi for Israel.
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