Help Defeat Legalized Discrimination In Israel

The Knesset has passed the first of three readings of a bill which would allow the Israel Land Authority (ILA) to hold leasing for lands it administers for the Jewish National Fund (JNF) for Jews only. This would bypass a ruling by the Attorney General Menachem Mazuz earlier this year barring such discrimination and also would pre-empt a case coming before the Supreme Court challenging such discrimination.

Mazuz was actually trying to save the JNF’s ability to hold land for Jews. His compromise was that the state would give an equal amount of land directly to the JNF for all land leased or sold to Arab citizens of Israel. This, however, did not satisfy some Knesset members.

The initial vote in the Knesset doesn’t necessarily portend ultimate passage. Only 80 of the 120 Knesset members voted on this bill at all and, while the vote was 64-16, it is not unusual for votes on bills in the Knesset to change sharply in subsequent readings. Thus, this is a case where a real impact can be made by those who believe that Israel must not be a discriminatory state. You can start by signing a petition I helped review here.

The current argument over JNF lands is due to the fact that the government administers its lands. While very little of Israel’s land (around 7%) is privately owned (and that ownership is actually split between Jews and Arabs rather evenly) that which is privately owned is not regulated. But, according to the Israel’s Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty, the ILA is forbidden to discriminate in bids for land. This does not, of course, prevent discrimination in land leases, but it does mean that such discrimination is illegal and can be challenged.

The exception to this has long been the JNF lands.

The JNF was established by the fifth Zionist Congress in 1901, spurred by an impassioned speech by Theodor Herzl. It’s purpose has been to buy and cultivate land in Palestine, then in Israel, for Jewish settlement. It is perhaps best known in recent years for its campaign to plant trees in Israel, something that seems a bit odd in light of the massive Israeli practice of uprooting trees of Palestinians.

Many see the JNF as having served its purpose, that if Israel is ever to have a normal existence, it must abandon discriminatory policies and live up to its pledge in its Declaration of Independence to be a “state of all its citizens.” The dissolution of the JNF is not in danger of occurring in the foreseeable future, though. So the question remains.

No one is arguing that private landowners can be regulated in this regard. But the JNF is not actually a private land owner. Not only are its lands administered by the state, but some 2/3 of its holdings were sold to the JNF by the state in 1949 and 1950 at a substantially discounted price because these lands were in fact owned by Palestinian refugees and Israel wanted to get that land into private hands so that it was not public land the refugees would be claiming.

But in 1960, the ILA took over administration of most JNF land (they do not administer the forests, which is one reason the campaign focus by the JNF from that time on focused on “planting trees in Israel”). Now the state was back in the business of this land. For decades, they simply said they were administrating it, but the rules governing the disposition of the land were in the hands of the JNF. The recent rulings put a stop to that kind of rhetorical chicanery.

One option is for the JNF to resume administration of the land privately. It, not the state, still owns that land. The argument for continuing JNF hold and maintaining JNF regulations over the land is that this was land bought by Jews for Jews over many decades of donations and as such is private property not subject to the anti-discrimination laws in Israel. This obviously doesn’t hold water if the government administers and effectively controls the leasing of that land.

Whether or not the JNF should even continue in this role is a worthy debate, but one that these events do not touch upon. What is most distressing is that, rather than try to get out from under the embarrassment of such clear discrimination, Israel is instead trying to legalize it. As law professor Amnon Rubinstein of the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center said in a letter to the Prime Minister, the bill “contradicts the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty and harms the basic values of the State of Israel.”

Jews across the political spectrum should be coming together on this, outside of those who blatantly support racism. This bill is precisely what Israel has been doing all these semantic and legal gymnastics to avoid–explicit racist legislation. Now, the piper must be paid. Israel can no longer pretend that ILA practices in this regard do not violate its own anti-discrimination laws, much less norms against such discrimination in any democratic society. It is facing a choice between cleaning up its act or giving up its cloak and being openly racist. On first reading it has chosen the latter, but that need not be the final word by any means. And we can help them come to a more rational, dignified and humane conclusion.