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It's Time to Guarantee Land Equality for All of Israel's Citizens

August 9, 2007 By:
Erik Schechter
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Sure, Maj.-Gen. Yusef Mishlab has devoted his life to the defense of Israel, but must he really live so close to us Jews? He is, after all, Druze -- a gentile.

Well, thanks to the Jewish National Fund, we can keep Arab, Druze and Circassian citizens out of our ethnically pure communities. Even better, the Israel Lands Administration, paid for in part by these undesirables, will manage our estates.

Offended? Good, that means you're a decent human being. Unfortunately, the problem for some is not the state-sanctioned segregation, but how to keep it legal.

You see, for the past 40 years, the ILA has maintained an official relationship with an ethnic-based land trust, and only now is Israel's High Court of Justice reviewing the propriety of the government leasing JNF land to Jews alone.

Against this backdrop, National Union Knesset member Uri Ariel proposed an amendment to the 1960 Israel Lands Administration Law that would allow the state to continue to discriminate against gentiles when representing the JNF. However, this maneuver is both racist and unlikely to succeed in the long run; a far wiser solution would be to have the state cut ties with the fund.

The Fifth Zionist Congress established the JNF in 1901 with the purpose of buying and holding land on behalf of the Jewish people. This mandate made perfect sense at the time. After all, the ultimate goal was to lay the foundations of a Jewish state, and who else was going to do it besides the Jews?

However, the land trust outlived its original purpose with the rise of Israel. Indeed, the JNF should have disappeared in 1948, but instead, it only got stronger.

In 1960, the boundary between state and fund blurred, thanks to a few new laws. JNF-owned property was -- for administrative purposes -- redefined as "Israel lands," and put under the management of the ILA. This arrangement (plus some juicy tax breaks) saved the fund a ton of money; it also gave an ostensibly private landowner 50 percent representation on the ILA's policy-making board.

The problem with this arrangement -- besides that whole corporatist thing -- is that the ILA and JNF are committed to two opposing principles. In its Declaration of Independence, the state vowed to "foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants."

By contrast, the JNF is duty-bound to its donors, who bought land so that it would be inhabited by Jews.

So how do you reconcile the two mandates?

The answer: You can't.

In 2004, the ILA tried to lease JNF residential plots on JNF terms in the northern town of Carmiel. But when the Association for Civil Rights in Israel got wind of the deal, it ran straight to the High Court of Justice. The court is still reviewing the Carmiel case, but the attorney general has already weighed in on the lease restrictions and, in 2005, declared them discriminatory.

The ILA canceled the Carmiel tenders this year. In a last-ditch effort to turn back the clock, Knesset member Ariel presented an amendment to the Israel Lands Administration Law that declares "leasing of JNF lands for the purpose of settling Jews will not be seen as unacceptable discrimination."

Why is it not unacceptable? Because Ariel said so. This ingenious piece of legislation passed a preliminary reading in mid-July by a margin of 64-16.

Of course, this is not the first time the Knesset has sought to legalize segregation. In 1995, an Arab couple tried to purchase a residential plot in Katzir, a Jewish community in the Galilee, only to be barred by the local homeowners' association. The case ended up before the High Court of Justice, which in 2000 ruled that state lands administered by a third party had to be made available to all citizens. Theodor Herzl and Jim Crow had parted ways.

Five years on, there's no reason to believe that the bypass legislation will succeed. The core issue remains the same: Can the state be a party to discrimination?

Barring a change in JNF policies, the only way out of the current imbroglio is for the JNF and ILA to part ways. True, the fund would then have to pay taxes and handle its own administrative costs, but it would not have to compromise its mandate. Likewise, the state would be free to do what all states should be doing -- guaranteeing the legal equality of its citizenry.

Erik Schechter is the former military correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.

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