Galilee Diary: Values collide
We hold that the State of Israel was not permitted, by law, to allocate State land to the Jewish Agency for the purpose of establishing the communal settlement of Katzir on the basis of discrimination between Jews and non-Jews.
-Israel Supreme Court decision, March 8, 2000
The issue of “admissions committees” in rural communities, which has been simmering for over a decade, came to a boil in recent months and has now sort of boiled over. For decades, kibbutzim and most other gated rural communities had rather draconian admissions procedures. For example, when we came to Shorashim in 1990 there was a preliminary interview, psychological testing, a weekend visit, a weeklong trial residency, a vote for acceptance to a year of probationary membership, and, at the end of the year, a final vote for membership. It was taken for granted that small communities had the right to choose their members, to perpetuate their values. We got in; some other families didn’t. While troubled on one level by this exclusivity, on another level Tami and I believed in it, as it seemed obvious that without it, our little Camelot would be overrun by city-dwellers looking for suburban life, with no interest in preserving and supporting Shorashim’s liberal Jewish life style. Of course, we tended to think keeping out those who might undermine the comfortable homogeneity that had so attracted us to the community meant selecting for people like us in our Jewish and liberal values. The flip side of that selection, which we didn’t really think about, was that non-Jews would certainly not fit the criteria. And since around here, non-Jews are mostly Arabs, we were essentially adopting a policy that was ethnically/religiously exclusive, something that we had railed against whenever we encountered it in the United States, growing up in the 50s and 60s.
This complacent compartmentalization was shaken by the Katzir case ten years ago, when an Arab family sought to build in a Jewish community, was rejected, and turned to the supreme court. This resulted in a decision that communities that were not defined by a specifically religious ideology could not be selective in admitting members. This left an opening for religious communities to preserve their lifestyle by selecting new members who hewed to their particular standard of religious observance. Later, similar test cases were brought by Jewish families excluded for personal, individual reasons, and their right to live where they wanted was likewise upheld by the court.
Over the past two years this ongoing controversy has landed in our backyard, as an Arab family applied to build in a community a few miles from here; their case is currently before the supreme court, and it seems pretty likely that the Katzir precedent will hold in their case. Most of the 30 Jewish communities in our county define themselves as “secular.” Some have synagogues that are active; many don’t have synagogues, or only use them for bar/bat mitzvahs or the high holidays. Most have a communal cultural life that doesn’t have much to do with Jewish observances. Suddenly there has been a flurry of legal activity as these communities rush to amend their bylaws to include some kind of Jewish-Zionist definition which would require new members to agree to a statement of commitment that an Arab couldn’t sign. And concern that these provisions might also ultimately fail in court has given rise to the effort to pass a law in the Knesset that would authorize local communities to be selective in their admissions, and to impose a non-religious but ideological test. This proposal seems likely to pass, despite vigorous efforts by civil rights organizations to stop it. The early 20th century Zionist writer Yosef Haim Brenner said that Jews’ bragging of their morality is like a eunuch bragging that he is not an adulterer. It seems to be much easier to be a strong supporter of minority rights when you are a member of a minority…