Monday, 24 June 2019

Astounding Facts Most People Don’t Know About Israel: 3

The only ethnic or religious group that faces systematic discrimination in Israel are Jews

I happened to eavesdrop recently on a group conversation about Israel that had become heated. One of the participants, an earnest young Jewish woman, took exception to a discussant’s demand that Israel should cease discriminating in favour of Jews. “Hold on,” she insisted angrily, “If there are all these Christian and Muslim states, why aren’t we allowed one country in the world that favours Jews?” It’s a fair question but it rests on a false premise. 

In a previous blog, I touched on the widely misunderstood primus inter pares status of Judaism in the Jewish state (and on the equally misrepresented Law of Return, that has no bearing on civil rights within Israel). I demonstrated that, contrary to popular belief, Judaism is not the official religion of Israel; it is merely one of several that are recognised by the state. But what about Jews as a group, or as an ethnicity? Surely our young Zionist must be right? Whatever the status of Judaism as a faith, isn’t it self-evident that the Jewish State of Israel, by its very nature, discriminates in favour of Jews and against non-Jews? 

The systematic and institutionalised legal discrimination against her non-Jewish citizens is a charge that is often levelled at “apartheid” Israel by her detractors (including some Israeli NGOs). Superficially, it’s a powerful tool in the antiZionist armoury and one that often hits the target. Indeed of all the criticisms of Israel that her enemies can muster, doesn’t this one look like a potential debate-clincher? Well, yes, except for one small problem (from the anti-Israel perspective): the accusation is false. 

Let me reveal a well-kept secret: Israeli law does not discriminate in any way against its non-Jewish citizens. If that statement surprises you, you’re not alone. Even many Jews are unaware of that reality.

The corollary is even more astonishing: the only religious or ethnic group that faces systematic, legally enforced discrimination in Israel (and the territories she entered, in self-defence, during the 1967 Six Day War) are the Jews. 

That may seem an absurdly counter-intuitive statement. Yet it is entirely evidence based.
Sceptical? Let’s look at the facts. 

As in most countries, the Israeli majority sometimes display casual prejudice against several minorities (including some Jewish groups). Given the history of virtual civil war between Jews and Arabs over many decades, it would be surprising if a degree of mutual antipathy between them was absent. But the Basic Laws (Israel’s constitution) guarantee complete equality under the law for all her citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish. This offers all Israelis legal recourse to challenge any discriminatory behaviour that they may believe they have suffered. 

Within pre-1967 Israel (i.e. within the Green Line agreed at the Rhodes Armistice conference in 1949), most of the complicated laws relating to religion are rooted in the historical Status Quo regarding religious communities. These regulations date back to the Ottoman Empire and were sustained during the British Mandate and by successive Israeli governments. For example, only Orthodox strands of Judaism are recognised by the Chief Rabbinate thereby creating difficulties for non-Orthodox Israeli Jews in the realms of citizenship, marriage and burial. No such restrictions apply to other faiths in the country. As for residency, the Supreme Court has ruled that Jews are not permitted to exclude non-Jews from any of their communities while Arabs may exclude Jews from theirs. 

Regarding military service, the burden of defending the country falls almost exclusively on Jewish shoulders. Conscription is compulsory for all Jewish Israelis except Charedim (ultra-orthodox Jews) – and efforts to remove that exemption are ongoing. In addition to the physical danger to which soldiers are exposed, the disruption to family life, education, career advancement and economic well-being that is caused by both regular and reserve army service is considerable. Non-Jews (other than Druze and Circassian men) are not required to serve though they can volunteer (and many do).

Israel has always striven to protect and grant access to the holy places of all faiths, particularly following her entry in 1967 into the areas historically known as Judea and Samaria and renamed “The West Bank” by Jordan when that country annexed them in 1949. Yet while Christians and Muslims are guaranteed the right to worship at their holiest sites, Jews are not. On religious festivals, you can witness Christians flocking to the Churches of the Holy Sepulchre and Nativity, and Muslims to the Haram al-Sharif (the Islamic name for the Temple Mount); by contrast, Jews can pray only at the foot of the Western Wall – a structure that lies close to but not within the Temple Mount precinct itself, the most sacred spot in Judaism. 

Jews are also banned from visiting most of Hebron, the second holiest city of their faith, and one that was for centuries home to a substantial Jewish community until they were massacred or expelled by Muslim extremists in 1929. Under the Oslo Accords (1993-95), Jews are not permitted under any circumstances to live in large swathes (40%) of Judea, the historical Jewish homeland that is largely located in areas A and B. West Bank and Gaza Arabs, on the other hand, may (and do) live throughout all of these territories (Areas A, B and C) except in the 1% of those territories (located mostly adjacent to the Green Line in Area C) where Israeli settlements have been established. 

There you have it: Israeli Jews are restricted, by a raft of domestic and international legal instruments, in their ability to pursue the kind of lifestyle that most of us take for granted. In particular, they are denied the right to worship at – or even visit – their most sacred sites, or to live in a large part of their historical homeland, despite being required, for the duration of much of their adult lives, to put their lives on the line for the purposes of defending the state. All of these obstacles to normal life stand in stark contrast to the position of every other ethnic or religious group that resides in the country. If that doesn’t amount to systematic discrimination, what does? 

That extraordinary state of affairs begs a further question: why were these draconian prohibitions on Jewish rights implemented over many decades by successive Israeli administrations? The answer is simple and commendable, though far too rarely acknowledged: to avoid provoking Arab/Muslim sensibilities and optimise the chances of peace. This is a unique and unprecedented policy: where else in the world has a government voluntarily renounced the rights of the majority of its citizens to live in their historical homeland, or pray at or visit their holiest sites, solely in the interests of achieving peace treaties with their neighbours?

Next time you hear someone stridently denouncing (or, for that matter, defending) Israel for “favouring Jews", speak up and protest. Having read this blog, you now possess the evidence to set the record straight. 

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