Update: On July 18, the Knesset passed the Basic Law.
Fifty years ago, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was enacted. Commonly known as the Fair Housing Act, it prohibited various forms of discrimination “in the sale, rental and financing of dwellings based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin,” according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Since then, HUD has been monitoring trends in racial and ethnic discrimination in rental and sales markets. According to the most recent survey, conducted in 2013, while housing discrimination is illegal, in practice, it unfortunately exists: “(w)hite homeseekers are more likely to be favored than minorities. Most important, minority homeseekers are told about and shown fewer homes and apartments than whites.”
A case in point happened in 1973, when the Justice Department sued a management corporation and its president, Donald Trump, for alleged racial discrimination against Blacks who wished to rent apartments in the New York city boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. When Trump started making noises about a potential presidential run in 2012, rapper Snoop Dogg quipped: “Why not? It wouldn’t be the first time he pushed a Black family out of their home.”
Seriously, in the United States housing discrimination is prohibited by law and generally condemned by public opinion. In Israel, on the other hand, housing discrimination might not only become a practice, but officially allowed by law.
If all goes well for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then next week the Knesset will pass the Basic Law: Israel as the state of the Jewish people, which he had designated as one of his priorities. That Israel doesn’t need such law is besides the point. The world knows that Israel is a Jewish state, and whoever doesn’t recognize it will not be impressed by this law or another. The main problem with this law is that it shatters the already fragile Israeli democracy.
At the crux of this controversial bill lies article 7b., which says “the state can allow a community composed of people of the same faith or nationality to maintain an exclusive community.” That this idea has already been dismissed by the Israeli Supreme Court two decades ago didn’t deter the initiators of this bill. In 2000, Chief Justice Aharon Barak ruled on the case of the Ka’adans, an Israeli-Arab couple who had been refused permission to buy a plot or home in Katzir, a Jewish cooperative settlement in northern Israel. “We do not accept the conception that the values of the state of Israel as a Jewish state justify discrimination by the state between citizens on the basis of religion or nationality,” wrote Barak in his landmark ruling.
Likkud Minister Yariv Levin called the Ka’dan ruling a “disgrace” and “the destruction of Zionism.” Now, as one of the initiators of the new Nation-State Law, he serves his revenge. And if the Supreme Court insists on holding such discrimination illegal and unconstitutional? No worries, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is already advancing the “overriding clause,” which will enable the Knesset to override Supreme Court decisions.
As always, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin stepped forward to save Israel’s soul. In an impassioned letter he sent on July 10 to the joint Knesset and Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, he implored members of the Knesset (MKs) to re-examine the repercussions of the specific article: “I also ask for us to look inward, into the depths of the Israeli society: are we willing in the name of the Zionist vision to lend a hand to discrimination and exclusion of a man or a woman based on their origin?”
President Rivlin, who always knew how to reconcile his ardent Zionism with his liberal view, went on to warn the MKs that discrimination will not be limited to Arabs: “The bill before you allows any group, in the broadest of terms and without any monitoring, to establish a community with no Mizrahi Jews, Haredim, Druze and members of the LGBT community.”
What Israel needs in order to strengthen its Jewish character is more Jews who would seek to make the Jewish state their home. The way to accomplish that is by aspiring to become what the prophet Isaiah called “light unto the nations,” not by passing discriminating laws, which only undermine Israel’s democracy and tarnish its name.
Uri Dromi is the director general of the Jerusalem Press Club. From 1992-96, he was a spokesman for the Israeli government.