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.