22 July 2007

23 July 2007 - Something to complain about

Once in a while, Israel—like every country—does something completely inexcusable. And it is the duty of those of us who care about Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state to protest. Last week, I attended a demonstration (below) at the Knesset against the demolition of unrecognized Bedouin settlements in the Negev. This week, I feel like marching again, to protest a horrid piece of legislation.

Last week, the Knesset approved a bill, in its preliminary reading, that would force the Jewish National Fund (JNF) to lease lands to Jews only. Currently, the JNF, which is not funded by Israeli taxpayers but undertakes many public projects in Israel, owns 13 percent of the land in the country. Recent High Court rulings and executive decisions indicated that Arabs may apply for leases as well as Jews. (They have, apparently, done so successful in the past already.)

Now, the Knesset is attempting to undo what the courts and the administration have done. The bill has not become law: it still has to pass three more readings in the Knesset, and be signed into effect. But it is a disgrace nonetheless. Ordinary provisions barring the introduction of racist legislation were not invoked because the bigotry is not explicit in the text of the bill itself. As if it could be any clearer!

There is nothing wrong with the JNF, under certain conditions, deciding to serve Jews primarily or even uniquely. After all, Jewish donors provide its funding. But if the JNF is to discriminate in that way, the state should have nothing to do with it or say about it. That means no Knesset bills telling the JNF what to do—and it means untangling the relationship between the JNF and the state in public projects.

I am almost equally irritated at the editors of Ha’aretz for their editorial yesterday, which called Israel “a racist Jewish state.” That is both a premature and immature judgment. The bill was introduced in order to reverse a state decision. In addition, while the motives of some politicians who supported the bill certainly seem racist, others seem moved by a concern—misapplied, but perhaps sincere—about the JNF.

The bill will no doubt be seized upon by enemies of Israel who want to declare it an apartheid state. In addition, several left-wing politicians—such as Ami Ayalon, who recently ran for the leadership of the Labor Party—supported it. That will, no doubt, satisfy those rejectionists who like to say that there is no Zionist left—that all Israeli political parties, except for the most radical, are equally morally corrupt.

But the core problem, in my view, is that Israeli politicians—both left and right—think the state is the solution to everything. So if the state decrees that the JNF cannot discriminate, then political leaders think the government must be forced by law to intervene—not that it should restructure its relationship with the JNF, spinning it out into the private sector where it can do whatever it likes.

The Ha’aretz editorial is correct in observing that “a racist Knesset” can overturn the decisions of the Israeli Supreme Court “[i]n an instant.” That is a constant danger, particularly in a conflict that drags on so long. Yet it also points to the need for constitutional and legal reforms that devolve power away from the legislature and create a supreme, indepdendent system of government and rights.

I understand and empathize with the outrage of the Ha’aretz editorial; I would, however, have put things differently. Certainly one can sense the frustration that has set in among many Israelis who are tired of occupation and inequality. But it seems to me the right answer is to call on concerned citizens to make use of their democratic rights to oppose the bill, not to condemn the state itself so reactively.

In the end, what lurks behind the bill is a corrosive myopia and self-indulgent self-righteousness that has slowly inured many (though not, I believe, most) Israelis to the suffering of others—not just across the Green Line, but within Israel. However, it is equally self-indulgent—and dangerous—to throw tantrums of despair. Outrage is demanded here—but so, too, is clear thinking and appropriate action in response.


At 5:04 PM, Blogger Ron "Mighty Gee Guy" said...

Great blog, 23 July 2007 - Something to complain about was very interesting to read.

Thank you.


At 9:34 AM, Blogger Liat said...

How sad that the intensity of political rivalry in Israel is so damaging. How sad that the American Jewish experience as a source for political insight and wisdom is just as stubbornly rejected. Whenever steps towards peace, justice and political maturity are taken for Israel's future you can rest assured that they will come not because of but despite our historic persistence as an 'am k'shay oref.'

At 10:52 AM, Anonymous mike said...


What is the legal relationship between the JNF and the state? Was any of that 13% of land given to them by the state? As you asked why would the JNF need state legislation to allow it to lease land to Jews only? I think it has something to do with the relationship between the ILA and the JNF. The answers to these questions (which I don’t have) go to the heart of the issue.

If the JNF is an NGO with conventional relationships to state institutions, then the issue becomes far more complex. But if it is a state or quasi state body, then you are 100% right and it is shameful.

At 12:16 PM, Blogger Michael said...

I don't really understand the relatoinship between the JNF and the state either, but I am also not ready to agree that allowing private organizations to discriminate based on ethnicity is any better than requiring the government to do it.

If there is no need for ethnic discrimination, it ought to be actively prohibited by the state. If there is a justifiable need, it ought to be highly regulated by the state so it can be limited and open to public debate.

At 3:51 PM, Anonymous mike said...

Michael, while I personally don’t agree with the JNF’s leasing land to Jews only (even if they are a private organization), I do think that it is a more complex issue than just saying ‘there is no need for ethnic discrimination’.

Take a private educational trust for example that has been set up to provide scholarships exclusively for Jewish students. There are many of these in the Diaspora including South Africa. Do you think that the state should intervene to prohibit these activities? What about charitable organizations like the Chevrah Kadisha (Sp?) that are there to help poor Jews only?

Over the last 100 years thousands of Jews donated money to the JNF for the express purpose of further Jewish settlement in the land of Israel. Is it right to go against the wishes of the donors?

So as I see it, the morality of the bill depends heavily on the legal relationship between the JNF and the state. Even if it is a private organization (which I actually doubt), I still don’t support the Jews only bill, but do think that there is much more room to justify it.

At 2:21 AM, Anonymous mike said...

ex Minister Rubinstein makes an interesting suggestion on the JNF law.


At 3:47 PM, Blogger Michael said...

Mike, you ask whether the desires of those who donated to the fund should be followed. This is not an easy question. Imagine a slightly different example. Suppose a group of white supremacists wanted to start their own community in Northern Idaho, so they buy some land and adopt a covenant stating that the land cannot be sold or rented to jews, blacks, gays, etc. In the US, this covenant, or at least the offending parts of it would be void. There are more complex cases in the South where people have given land to a city specifically for the purpose of creating a white only city park. Now that such a thing is illegal, some would argue that the original deed to the city is void.

In any case, there are obvious differences between the JNF and the examples I mentioned, but there are similarities, too. I don't think we can say straight off that there is no relation between Jews who want their own community and White supremacists who want their own community.

I think it comes down to the fundamental question of whether it is more important for Israel to be a Jewish State or a liberal democracy. In the case of the White supremacists, everyone would agree (for the most part) that equality outwieghs the need for white supremacist communal identity. But to what extent are people willing to compromise democracy for Jewishness?

This is not a rhetorical question. I don't think liberal democracy is a fundamental good. It is a means to good governance.

You also mentioned Jewish Charities. In the US it is certainly possible to create a charity that say, gives scholarships only to people from a certain ethnic background. Why are these charities different than land sales? I don't think there is a clear line, but there is a difference between land and other forms of wealth that make it more important to free land from such discriminatory restrictions.

At 4:30 PM, Blogger Joel said...

Both the South African Constitution and the Israeli Basic Laws prohibit unfair discrimination while allowing for forms of "fair" discrimination. The original purpose of the JNF was bound to the project of nation-building: it was used to purchase land for Jewish settlement and farming in Palestine. After the state was born, it continued to do the same, but often participates jointly with the state in development and conservation projects. So that's where the problem lies. (The issue isn't land sales to Jews, by the way--the JNF just leases its lands. But the covenant issue Michael refers to might apply in either case.) I agree with Amnon Rubenstein's approach: give lands to the state, so no discrimination is allowed, and let the JNF play a supporting role. (Thanks for the link, Mike.) I happened to meet with Rubenstein this week. He recommended his book, Israel and the Family of Nations, which is a defense of Israel on human rights grounds. It is only in print in Hebrew and French; the English version is coming out in a year or so.


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