June 26, 2018

Civil Society Leaders: Recent Events Suggest Anti-Arab Discourse is Trickling Down

In recent months, a number of successive events have taken place in Jewish communities in which Jewish residents publicly protested against Arab integration into the community, or Arab use of community facilities. These included Arab real-estate purchases in Kfar Vradim and in Afula, Bedouin use of a public swimming pool in a Negev kibbutz, and a proposal to open a Jewish-Arab kindergarten in Karmiel.

While controversy around demographic changes—especially related to integration of Arab citizens into traditionally Jewish communities—has been a challenge in Israel in the past, several organizations and civil society leaders say the frequency and nature of these protests represent a trend in which anti-Arab discourse is now not only more prevalent, but also more acceptable to express in public.

In 2017, IDI survey found that while “definite, substantial disagreements exist between Jews and Arabs on the state level […] relations on the societal and, to an even greater extent, personal levels are less tense. In certain areas of life, the situation is actually quite positive.”

Today, civil society organizations such as the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and the Racism Crisis Center (an initiative of the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel) say that this series of protests are an indication that prolonged use of anti-Arab discourse by public officials trickles down and sanctions such expression on the interpersonal and societal levels. Many identified the Prime Minister’s warning on Election Day in March 2015 that “the Arabs are flocking to the polls in droves” as the beginning of this public sanction.

Recent research published by the Coalition Against Racism (which convenes over 40 organizations and individuals fighting for human rights and against racism in Israel), includes a detailed account of dozens of inflammatory remarks by elected officials (MKs, Ministers and the Prime Minister), as well as by senior Rabbis who are civil servants of the state and of local authorities. Adv. Nidal Otman, Director of the Coalition Against Racism summarized this hypothesis by saying: “We see this more and more – that Israeli politicians both feed off of racism against Arabs and, when they participate in events like this, they feed into it.” Municipal leaders participated in some of these protests and claimed it was their job to preserve the Jewish character of the town, in some cases basing their protest on ‘majority rights.’

Other processes and events also affect rising tensions. Civil rights and activist groups cited the following as factors that contribute to this trend:

  • A growing Arab middle class, which is gradually moving out of the traditional Arab localities into neighboring Jewish localities where services are better and quality of life is higher, while in Arab localities services – such as housing opportunities, education and recreation – remain limited.
  • The approaching local elections, scheduled for October 2018, as campaigns by local candidates sometimes enhance such discourse. The fact that elected mayors as well as candidates running for local office participated in some of the recent protests, is seen as especially problematic.
  • Summertime, when schools are out often create more friction between neighboring Jewish and Arab communities – as Jews and Arabs usually live in separate communities and frequent separate public school systems, with children out of school and families looking for recreation in the same public spaces.

Following are more detailed accounts of recent events and their related controversy:

Kfar Vradim Arab neighborhood: in mid-March, significant controversy broke out regarding the integration of Arab families into a wealthy small community in the Galilee called Kfar Vradim (“Village of Roses”), known as a liberal community practicing good relations with its Arab neighbors. The community issued a tender for families interested to populate a new neighborhood being built, and when it turned out that half of the winners of the tender were Arab families (58 families), Kfar Vradim mayor announced he was suspending future sales of building lots in the community, citing the importance of “majority rights, among them the right to sustain a community that preserves agreed-upon core values.” This decision led to vocal criticism, more so since a large part of the land on which Kfar Vradim was built in the 1980s, was expropriated from the Arab residents of nearby locals. Some Kfar Vradim residents and activists backed the mayor’s decision claiming, “we are not against Arabs…but every community has its character… [and] Kfar Vradim is essentially a liberal Zionist Jewish community”. Other residents protested against the decision, with some critics claiming this behavior cannot be disassociated from larger political trends such as the promotion of the “nation-state bill”, or even that the behavior of Kfar Vradim mayor and community was proof that “a Jewish-Zionist identity is not compatible with democracy and equality.”

Afula demonstrations: in mid-June, a number of demonstrations took place in the city of Afula in Israel’s north, against the sale of a home to an Arab family. The protesters waved Israeli flags and carried signs reading “Afula is in Danger” and “Afula is not for sale.” Former Mayor Avi Elkabetz, who this year is running for mayor again, joined the demonstration, saying, “The residents of Afula aren’t racist – they just want a Jewish city. I am committed to making sure that Afula doesn’t become a mixed city, just as its founders wanted.” MK Yousef Jabareen of the Joint Arab List criticized the protest, saying, “These signs and slogans are reminiscent of dark periods in history.” A number of writers and journalists also criticized the protests, especially the fact that elected officials and those running for office joined them, and the event received international coverage. Jewish and Arab activists also criticized the event, with Adv. Souhad Bishara from Adallah writing that the demonstrators are not an exception to the rule but actually exemplify “the racist separation on which land policies in Israel have been founded”. In response, an overview of the Israeli Land Authority (ILA) sales conducted by Israel Hayom newspaper, found that almost all sales of state land in Arab localities are slated for “local residents”, while similar sale of state land in Jewish communities is open for all citizens. According to the newspaper this represents “discrimination against Jews“, while according to the ILA response, all land sales are conducted according to egalitarian policies, and in Arab localities this is done “with the aim of ensuring the lands would reach local residents without housing…and not developers who seek to turn a profit”.  Similar protests took place in Afula in December 2015, when a housing tender was won by Arab families. The tender was later disqualified by the Regional Court due to fiscal irregularities.

Mevo’im Swimming pool separation: also in mid-in June, Haaretz article reported that Bedouin families have been denied entry to a swimming pool in Kibbutz Mevo’im in the Western Negev, and were told that Bedouins are only allowed in after 6pm. While the pool management claimed that on the weekend only registered local members were allowed to enter the pool, local residents and pool staff informally admitted there is a “non-written agreement” where a separation of hours is maintained since “Jewish residents threatened to boycott the pool if Bedouins were allowed to enter”. Meanwhile, a different Bedouin resident from Segev Shalom claimed it was the Bedouins’ request that separate pool hours be kept “since we have religious people among us” (Hebrew). The news led to numerous criticism by rights groups, activists and journalists, such as by Sikkuy, which posted an image reading “No Entrance to Arabs… before 6pm” (see below), stating, “unfortunately this is not a single event but a dangerous trend that must be resisted”.  As a result of this practice becoming known, a number of Knesset Members, from Opposition parties (Meretz, Zionist Cap and the Joint Arab List) and one from Coalition Party Kulanu, sent a letter to the Attorney general calling upon him to work towards ending the separation in the public swimming pool, calling it “a grave practice that has no place in a democratic state” and saying it violates anti-discrimination laws.

Protest against the intention to establish a bilingual kindergarten in Karmiel: protest also started in recent days in Karmiel, when residents were invited to register their children to a new bilingual Jewish-Arab kindergarten which is planned for the next academic year (September 2018). Hand in Hand, which operates a number of bilingual schools and kindergartens in Israel, distributed pamphlets in Karmiel towards the establishment of this new bilingual education framework. Local news outlets report (Hebrew) that one of the candidates to the mayor of the city, Moshe Kaninski, “is joining the fight” against the establishment of the new kindergarten, quoting him as saying the new initiative, “might harm the character of Karmiel, which as we know was established for a central and important goal – to widen the Jewish settlement in the Galilee.”

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