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Behind the Headline Land Sale Ruling is Latest Word in Debate on Jewish, Democratic State

February 2, 2005
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In 1901, the fledgling Zionist movement took one of its first major leaps — the creation of a fund to buy land to settle Jews in Palestine. More than 100 years later, the attorney general of the State of Israel has decided that the Jewish National Fund must make its land available to all Israeli citizens, both Jews and Arabs.

Some have welcomed Attorney General Menachem Mazuz’s decision last week as a step toward fuller democracy in the Jewish state, which long has struggled with the tension of being both a homeland for Jews — with a certain amount of “affirmative action” for them — and a democracy that serves all citizens equally.

But others have condemned the decision as surrender to a post-Zionist world view where political correctness comes before Jewish peoplehood.

“The attorney general is convinced that the Israel Lands Authority as a government body is obligated to uphold the principles of equality. This obligation includes the marketing of lands belonging to the JNF,” said Mazuz’s statement, released last week.

The ILA controls all government land and is responsible for administering JNF land.

Israeli Arabs and some human rights groups took issue with the second part of the decision, which said the government will give JNF state land to compensate for any JNF land that is leased to Arabs, allowing the organization to remain true to its mission.

That provision only perpetuates discrimination against the country’s Arab minority, critics say.

For Dorit Karlin, associate director in Israel of the New Israel Fund, an organization that funds democracy and human-rights projects, the decision is a watershed in the quest for an equilibrium between Israel’s values as a Jewish state and a democracy.

“I think it is one of the few times that the State of Israel looked with brave eyes at its deep democratic values and what they mean, and from this perspective it reflects the new discourse in Israel — that we are not looking in terms of white or black but grays. We are looking for a solution,” Karlin said. “In a sense, this discourse is part of growing up and of being over 50, when you can look at yourself less defensively and in a grown-up way and say, ‘We have a conflict here and we have to solve it.’ “

The JNF itself said it doesn’t want Arab citizens to suffer discrimination. It welcomed Mazuz’s recommendation that in cases where a non-Jew wins public bidding for land administered by the ILA that includes JNF land, a parcel of equal value will be transferred to the JNF.

In this way, the JNF said in a statement, “Two goals would be achieved: On the one hand, the principle of civil equality would be retained, with the avoidance of potential unfairness to Arab citizens, while on the other” the JNF “will retain its land ownership scope and capacity to continue operating in accordance with its principles in the service of the Jewish people.”

JNF Chairman Yehiel Leket noted in the statement that the JNF owns 13 percent of land in Israel, and 80 percent is owned by the government. Some 6.5 percent is owned privately by Arabs and Jews.

“One ought to remember that Israel is still in its formative stage and its Jewish character is not yet assured,” Leket said.

A recent JNF survey found that about 80 percent of Israeli Jews prefer to have Israel defined first and foremost as the state of the Jewish people, according to the statement.

Mazuz’s decision was prompted by an appeal by human rights groups to Israel’s High Court of Justice against JNF policy to lease land only to Jews. There has been speculation in the Israeli press that the government realized it would lose the case if it defended the JNF’s current practices.

Hanna Swaid, executive director of the Arab Center for Alternative Planning, one of the groups that filed the appeal, found Mazuz’s decision perplexing.

“The obligation to operate with equality in regard to Arab citizens in the State of Israel is an important decision, but having said that I would say that, practically speaking, I don’t see that it will have any effect on the ground,” Swaid said, pointing to the JNF compensation provision.

Swaid said Mazuz did not go as far as a 2000 Supreme Court ruling that the state could not authorize discriminatory land distribution. In that case, the court ruled against the ILA, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the communal settlement of Katzir for refusing an Arab Israeli who wanted to buy a plot of land there.

Eli Tsur, a historian who specializes in the history of Zionism, agreed that the Mazuz decision was not as momentous as the 2000 Supreme Court ruling.

The contradiction between Israel as a Jewish state and a state of all its citizens “maybe is impossible to solve,” he said.

According to Arieh Eldad, a Knesset member with the right-wing National Union bloc, there is no moral dilemma. Outraged by Mazuz’s decision, he has called for his removal.

“It’s the de-Zionization of the State of Israel,” Eldad said. “The Declaration of Independence defined everything exactly, that the State of Israel will be a Jewish, democratic state. Jewish first, Democratic second. Whenever there is a collision between the two definitions, it was understood that first we are Jewish — and now they are trying to turn it upside down to say first of all we are democratic.”

Israel long has considered itself entitled to offer a sort of affirmative action to Jews, who are a tiny minority in the Middle East, where selling land to a Jew is punishable by death in some places. In addition, in some cases where Jews have attempted to move into non-Jewish neighborhoods in Israel, the non-Jews have protested vigorously, saying they should be allowed to maintain ethnically and culturally distinct communities.

For Rachel Benziman, executive director of Association for Civil Rights in Israel and one of the petitioners in the appeal to the Supreme Court, the Mazuz decision is not perfect but is an important step toward achieving equality for all Israeli citizens.

“It’s not ideal and it’s not going to solve the discrimination, but right now it’s the best solution,” she said.

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