I am just returning from two hectic weeks in Israel. Among the highlights of my visit was the celebration marking the 25th year of the enormously successful Israel American Civil Liberties Law Fellows program, which represents a partnership between the New Israel Fund and the Washington College of Law (WCL). In addition to honoring Professor Herman Schwartz, who conceived the program and has served as a mentor for the more than 55 law fellows, NIF and WCL hosted a day-long seminar, which featured presentations by many of the law fellow alumni.
Former Chief Justice Aharon Barak delivered the keynote address at the seminar. To my surprise (and perhaps his), Barak’s address drew considerable media attention. Barak emphasized the pernicious impact of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank (and formerly Gaza) on the human rights realities facing Palestinians. "When you think about human rights in Israel, you should think, of course, about human rights in the occupied territories as well. The situation there is - you know better than I do; I do hope the solution will not come in a judgment from the Supreme Court but will be a political solution. I do hope it comes as soon as possible."
He also remarked on the attitudes of Israeli Jews towards Arabs in Israel: “If you ask an Israeli, 'are you in favor of equality for Arabs,' they will say, 'yes, of course.' If you ask them are they in favor of throwing the [Arabs] out, they say, 'yes, of course.' And it doesn't feel like any contradiction to them. I think that much, much more has to be done in this area."
Finally, echoing NIF’s longstanding position, Barak reiterated that the concept of a “Jewish and democratic state” and a “state of all its citizens” could be reconciled. "I do see Israel as a Jewish state and a state whose values are Jewish and democratic. On the other hand, I am a great believer that this is the country of all its citizens. And I do think that the Arabs, like every other citizen, should have equality.”
The reaction to Barak’s speech within certain sectors was apocalyptic. A Jerusalem Post columnist characterized Barak as having denounced “Jews as stupid racists” and as reflecting the “anti-democratic Jewish revolution” that Barak initiated. Of course, Barak is a self-defined proud Zionist and, throughout his lengthy judicial career, sought to provide the protections of the law to those most in need.
Yet, Barak’s warning about the attitudes of Israeli Jews should be taken seriously. Last week, for example, Ariel Atias, Israel’s Minister of Housing, warned against the spread of the Arab population into various parts of Israel as a national responsibility. On a visit to Akko in the Western Galilee, we heard about efforts to "Judaize” the city through the setting aside of buildings for Jewish religious institutions and for housing "Jewish settlers" on an exclusive basis. And more subtly, Danilovich, the young and dynamic mayor of Be’er Sheva, informed a group of NIF staffers that a building used as a mosque until 1948 would not revert to such use because of “security concerns;” more likely, the fear is that a mosque would attract Arab citizens of Israel to live in Be’er Sheva, which the Mayor fears would impact on the quality of life for the city’s Jewish residents.
The increased public manifestations of racist attitudes must be addressed head-on. Whether communicated by public officials, athletes or other public figures, statements that demean a segment of the population or that encourage discrimination must be challenged immediately. Moreover, a national dialogue regarding the meaning of “equality” in a democratic society is urgently needed and school-level civic education programs should be designed to promote positive attitudes of the “other” among Israeli youth. In this regard, Israelis should be thankful to Justice Barak for drawing attention to the problem.