Israeli town freezes new housing project to stop entry of Palestinian citizens. But the mayor insists he’s not racist
Middle East Eye – 29 March 2018
How would you describe a white town in a southern state in the United States that froze the tender for plots of land in a new neighbourhood because it risked allowing blacks to move in? As racist?
What would you think of the town’s mayor for claiming the decision was taken in the interests of preserving the “white character” of his community? That he was a bigot?
And how would you characterise the policy of the state in which this town was located if it enforced almost complete segregation between whites and blacks, ghettoising the black population? As apartheid, or maybe Jim Crow?
And yet, replace the word “white” with “Jewish” and this describes what has just happened in Kfar Vradim, a small town of 6,000 residents in the Galilee, in Israel’s north. More disturbing still, Kfar Vradim’s policy cannot be judged in isolation. It is a reflection of how Israeli society has been intentionally structured for decades.
Segregation as the norm
Residential segregation between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens is the norm in Israel. In fact, it is such an established fact of life that it is barely ever commented on. There are many hundreds of rural communities controlling almost all of Israel’s land that are exclusively Jewish and have been so since Israel was created 70 years ago.
So one could almost commiserate with Kfar Vradim’s mayor, Sivan Yechiel, after he provoked condemnation last week for his decision to freeze construction of a new neighbourhood of more than 2,000 homes, intended to double the size of his town. It emerged that in the first round of tenders, more than half the highest bids for plots of land were placed by Palestinian citizens, not Jews.
Israel’s Palestinian minority, a fifth of its population, are the remnants of the Palestinian people who were mostly expelled in 1948 from their homeland during what Palestinians call the Nakba, the Arabic word for “catastrophe”.
According to Israel and its supporters, Palestinian citizens enjoy full and equal rights with Jewish citizens, unlike Palestinians in the occupied territories, who live under military rule. But the reality – one carefully concealed from outsiders – is very different.
Kfar Vradim’s decision briefly illuminates the ugly reality of what a Jewish state means. It provides the context for understanding Land Day, whose anniversary falls this week, marking the day in 1976 when Israeli security forces killed six unarmed Palestinian citizens as the minority held a general strike to protest against the continuing confiscation of their lands.
Kfar Vradim and dozens of other Jewish communities were created in response to Land Day – explicitly to “Judaise the Galilee”. The tradition of racism that inspired Kfar Vradim’s establishment is simply being honoured and preserved today by Yechiel.
That is why Adalah, a legal group for Israel’s Palestinian minority, accused the mayor of being “motivated by racism”. And why Jamal Zahalka, a Palestinian member of Israel’s parliament, lamented Kfar Vradim’s “apartheid” policy.
Liberal and ‘racist’
That said, Kfar Vradim is far from the illiberal, intolerant community one might imagine from these criticisms. Three-quarters of its residents voted for left and centre-left parties in Israel’s last election. It has decisively bucked the ultra-nationalist trend that has kept Benjamin Netanyahu and the far-right in power for nearly a decade.
Nonetheless, in a Facebook debate among Kfar Vradim residents about the tender, many expressed concern. A local real estate broker, Nati Sheinfeld, warned that it was time to “wake up” to the threat of Palestinians taking over the community.
Yechiel defended the decision to freeze the new neighbourhood on the grounds that he was entrusted to keep Kfar Vradim “Zionist and Jewish”. In a further clarification, he said he would lobby the government to provide his community with housing solutions that did not disturb its current “demographic balances” – in other words, solutions that would keep out Palestinian citizens.
No Arabs as neighbours
In fact, Kfar Vradim mayor’s response was entirely typical. There have been a spate of similar stories in recent years. Towns close by in the Galilee like Nazareth Ilit, Karmiel, Afula, Nofit, Tzfat and Nahariya have all been battling to bar entry to Palestinian citizens with varying degrees of success.
In recent surveys, half of Israeli Jews confess that they do not want “Arabs” as neighbours. The reality, as Kfar Vradim illustrates, is that far more feel this way in practice. As Haaretz commentator David Rosenberg observed, almost certainly many respondents “were too embarrassed to tell the pollster what they really think”.
Opposition to having Palestinians as neighbours is not founded on security or economic concerns. Palestinian citizens have proved to be a largely peaceable, if highly marginalised, minority. And those able to afford to move into Jewish communities – especially Kfar Vradim, one of the wealthiest in the country – are the most successful among the Palestinian minority. They are business people and professionals like doctors, lawyers, engineers and architects.
Rooted in Zionism
So why is Kfar Vradim dead-set against allowing them in? The answer requires an historical analysis of how Israel has structured and organised itself as a Jewish state. In fact, Kfar Vradim’s policy is deeply rooted in an ideology, Zionism, whose values are unquestioned by almost all Israeli Jews.
The founders of Israel, men like David Ben Gurion, were East Europeans who viewed themselves as communists or socialists. Before Israel’s creation, under British patronage, they established pioneer farming collectives like the kibbutz and moshav.
But in the spirit of Zionism, they made sure these communities were all exclusively Jewish. They were there to “Judaise” the land through “Hebrew labour”. Zionism’s leaders firmly believed that, through physical toil, Jews could transform both the land, “making the desert bloom”, and themselves, becoming a strong, self-reliant “Volk” or people.
But there was an important corollary. Judaisation would strip the native Palestinian people of the land they depended on as farmers, while Hebrew labour would deny them alternative employment in what would become an exclusively Jewish economy. It was a form of aggressive settler-colonialism.
Land nationalised for Jews
After the Nakba and the expulsion of most of the Palestinian population, the new state of Israel did not abandon these policies and adopt an inclusive, civic notion of citizenship, the basis of liberal democracy. Instead, it expanded and intensified the Judaisation project.
Foreign observers were often charmed by the idea of the socialist kibbutz and the progressive and transformative type of politics it supposedly embodied. They overlooked the fact that all of this was being built on the racist exclusion of native Palestinians.
The lands of the Palestinian refugees were expropriated, as was most of the land belonging to the minority of Palestinians who managed to remain in Israel and eventually received citizenship – the trigger for the Land Day events being commemorated this week.
Israel then “nationalised” almost all of its territory – 93 per cent – holding it collectively in trust for the Jewish people around the world, not Israeli citizens.
As a result, Palestinian citizens were hemmed into some 120 Palestinian communities, on little more than 2 per cent of Israeli territory. These Palestinian communities languish at the very bottom of Israel’s socio-economic tables.
Trapped in ghettoes
In recent decades, Palestinian communities have become massively overcrowded because Israel has refused to free up land for their expansion and has not created a single new Palestinian community since 1948.
Many thousands of Palestinian families have been forced to build homes illegally as a result, and now live with the permanent threat of demolition hanging over their heads.
This is not just about neglect. Israeli officials had a methodology and a goal in mind, little different from the those being applied close by in the occupied territories.
The aim was to make the Palestinian minority poor and internally divided: like children playing a game of musical chairs, they would have to fight over ever-diminishing resources.
In desperation, some would opt to collaborate or turn informer, in return for partial relief from their distress. A weak, dependent society like this would be incapable of organisation to demand its rights. And ultimately, Israeli officials hoped, Palestinian citizens would grow hopeless and emigrate.
But there was a danger too that wealthier, more successful Palestinians might flee their ghettoes not by leaving Israel but by seeking homes in Jewish communities and trying to integrate. That violated the deepest impulses of a Zionist-Jewish state.
It was not hard to slam shut the door of most communities. The hundreds of rural villages controlling most of Israel’s “national lands” established admissions committees. Their job was to vet applicants and keep out Palestinian citizens. That was integral to their “Judaisation” mission.
To this day, hundreds of collective communities bar access, arguing that Palestinian citizens are “socially unsuitable”. The flimsy logic – echoed now by the mayor of Kfar Vradim – has been that it is vital for these communities to preserve a Jewish, Zionist character.
But it was trickier to use such legal chicanery to exclude Palestinian citizens from towns and cities.
A few cities in Israel are misleadingly termed “mixed”, where small numbers of Palestinian families survived the ethnic cleansing of 1948. They usually live in separate neighbourhoods, marginalised from the main Jewish city. Segregation in these areas has taken a different form.
But in ordinary as well as mixed cities, Israel could not easily argue that admissions committees were needed to stop integration and protect the special Jewish character of the city’s life. Doing so risked looking a little too obviously like apartheid South Africa.
Liberation from land shortages
For most of Israel’s history, segregation and exclusion were maintained in the towns and cities, nonetheless. Free-market economics and careful planning was enough to keep Palestinians at bay.
The vast majority of Israeli Jews are raised as ardent Zionists, and hold “Judaisation” – making territory Jewish – as a supreme value. There were no signs saying “No Arabs”, but few were willing to sell their homes to Palestinian citizens, especially when they could find a Jewish buyer.
And few Palestinian citizens could afford homes in Jewish towns anyway. In addition, there were no schools teaching in Arabic for their children, jobs were scarce, and prejudice rife. It was a prospect few Palestinian citizens contemplated. Until recently.
The land shortages in Israel’s Palestinian communities have only intensified since the events of Land Day, as have the overcrowding, the lack of services and infrastructure, the absence of green spaces, and the poor quality of government schools for the Palestinian minority.
Meanwhile, in an increasingly globalised world, Palestinian citizens are much less willing to continue living in their segregated communities. They have aspirations for a better quality of life for their children, and are increasingly “westernised” – they value personal independence over the protection offered by living close to the extended family.
All of these factors have combined to drive those with good jobs and high salaries to liberate themselves from their Palestinian ghettoes and seek housing solutions in Jewish communities.
On the front line
The front line of this battle for housing rights is the Galilee, where Palestinian citizens comprise half the population. For this reason, in the state’s early years Ben Gurion prioritised an official campaign to “Judaise the Galilee”, building Jewish communities on lands confiscated from Palestinians to contain them and deprive them of room for future expansion.
Kfar Vradim itself was established in 1984 on part of the lands of the neighbouring Palestinian town of Tarshiha. As in other Jewish communities, many of its residents believe – in line with Ben Gurion’s philosophy – that they are the main bulwark against an “Arab takeover” of the Galilee.
But Kfar Vradim has found itself defenceless against a first wave of Palestinian professionals expecting to live the dream they see their Jewish neighbours enjoying at their expense. Already a handful of Palestinian families have managed to move in. Yechiel and other residents are worried that this could soon turn into a flood as it seeks to expand.
Kfar Vradim lacks an admissions committee that would have solved its problem. And recent rulings from the Israeli courts have further tied its hands: in most cases, towns and cities are required to include all citizens in the tendering process for new housing projects.
Stopping an Arab influx
At the moment the numbers of Palestinian families that can afford and want to move into Jewish towns is small. But it is growing, and even these small numbers are too many for most Jewish communities.
Yechiel may balk at the solutions adopted by some neighbouring Jewish towns.
For example, Nazareth Ilit, which was built on the lands of Nazareth, the largest Palestinian city in Israel, has tried to halt the influx of Palestinians by planning a large Jewish ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood.
The courts have made an exception that allows for restrictive tenders in the case of religious Jews so that they can live in self-contained communities. Nazareth Ilit’s leaders appear to be hoping that, with high birth rates and intolerant attitudes, a strong ultra-Orthodox presence may dissuade more Palestinians from moving in.
But this approach is likely to be considered a step too far for Kfar Vradim’s very secular and wealthy residents.
Yechiel may hope instead that he can rely on a legal remedy. In 2016 a district court ruled in favour of the municipality of Afula after it blocked 48 Palestinian families who had won housing tenders. Palestinian legislators called the court decision “shameful” and “racist”.
Hunt for permanent solutions
But Kfar Vradim’s mayor is also appealing to the government to help devise a more permanent solution. He may not be disappointed.
The World Zionist Organisation, an international organisation that enjoys quasi-governmental status in Israel, announced last summer it was reviving Ben Gurion’s Judaisation campaign. It is preparing to establish several new, exclusively Jewish communities.
And this month an Israeli parliamentary committee approved the final draft of new legislation – the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish people. It will give constitutional backing to the creation of communities “composed of people of the same faith or nationality to maintain an exclusive community”. In practice, this measure is designed only to help the Jewish faith and nationality.
These moves come as Israel prepares to demolish next month Umm al-Hiran, a Bedouin village in the Negev, so it can be replaced with an exclusively Jewish community, Hiran. The bylaws of Hiran entitle it to admit as residents only those “who observe the Torah and commandments according to Orthodox Jewish values”.
Kfar Vradim’s wealthy, liberal residents are no aberration in wanting to keep out their Palestinian fellow citizens. They are the authentic inheritors of a Zionist tradition that has entrenched an apartheid system of rule in Israel over 70 years.
Ben Gurion and Israel’s founders would be proud indeed of Kfar Vradim.