Opposing segregation

The nation-state bill has caused controversy across Israel, in the Diaspora and in the West with criticism that it will enshrine in a basic law forms of discrimination, racism and segregation. That was the message of protesters Saturday night in Tel Aviv.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sought out a compromise on the bill to water down the clause that was viewed as encouraging segregation. “The state will encourage, establish and strengthen Jewish settlement in a way that will make clear that encouraging Jewish settlement is a legitimate way of implementing the Zionist vision and is not unacceptable discrimination or inequality,” the new clause reads. Previously the bill had said that the state may allow communities to maintain separate nationalist or religious communal settlements.

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Ostensibly the nation-state bill enshrines into law what already exists in Israel, that the country is the nation state of the Jewish people. It anchors in law the menorah as the state’s symbol, Jerusalem as its capital, Judaism’s holidays and other aspects of the state’s Jewish identity.

The nation-state debate is one that has overshadowed Israel since the pre-state era. What kind of state will Israel be? A cultural home for the Jewish people. A binational state. A Soviet-style communist country or an American-style country of secularism and division of religion from state.

In reality, the state combines aspects of all of the streams of Zionism which built it. It enshrines privileges to Orthodox Judaism. It has hundreds of communities that openly discriminate based on religious and national factors. The education system offers several streams to citizens but in essence segregates them into separate Arab and Jewish systems, and within the Jewish system into different religious streams. It is a compromise state in this respect. No one would mistake the State of Israel for anything but the nation state of the Jewish people.

But right-wing religious parties fear that these aspects of the state could be eroded in the future and want them anchored in law. “Those who do not know how to defend Israel as a Jewish state in a practical way should return their keys and go home,” MK Bayit Yehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich said on Sunday, criticizing Netanyahu’s attempt at compromise. Aymen Odeh, chairman of the Joint List, argued Saturday that it was important to raise a hand against creeping “fascism” in the country.

Foreign diplomats have also weighed in. EU Ambassador to Israel Emanuele Giaufret encouraged MKs to oppose the bill, according to a Channel 2 report. US Congressmen have reached out to Israel’s ambassador to oppose the bill. Jerry Silverman, president of the Jewish Federations of North America, is also coming to Israel to oppose the bill.

 Since a Supreme Court case in 2000 brought by Adel and Iman Kaadan, discrimination against Arabs seeking to move to or join Jewish cooperative settlements has ostensibly been against the law. But the ruling didn’t bring the equality that rights activists thought it would. The NGO Adalah was still fighting cases in 2016 against the Israel Lands Authority regarding a company’s refusal to sell homes to Arab Israelis. Most recently, protests were held in Kfar Vradim and Afula after plots there were sold to Arabs.

This points to widespread de facto discrimination and segregation between communities. Some of this segregation is put down to the fact that different communities self-segregate. But rights activists have asked why, for instance, Negev Beduin were not permitted by the state to build communal settlements on state land the way kibbutzim or moshavim were over the last 70 years. Opposition to the nation-state bill and compromises therefore only address part of the elephant in the room. Arab and Jewish citizens should not have to go to court to move to a community. In a community near Sderot discrimination against Mizrahi residents forced them to seek legal redress to move in. Ethiopian Jews have faced hurdles in access to housing.

 Struggling against segregation is not just about one law. It is about the larger struggle for coexistence and having more between Israel’s numerous diverse communities. The discussion of the nation-state bill should give impetus to a discussion about how we can bridge gaps in society and coexist. The state is a Jewish state, but in its soul it is also a state where coexistence should be a powerful value underpinning its strength in a region where intolerance too often dominates.