Jerusalem — Manal Diab, a single, 26-year-old Arab woman who graduated in June from the Hebrew University, did not think twice before renting an apartment in Jewish West Jerusalem.
“I didn’t think whether it was an Arab or Jewish [community], it was cheap and I teach very close to here,” she said. “It has a view of the Old City that I feel I belong to. Arabs were here before ’48.”
Diab and her roommates, sisters Sonya and Wafa Khoury from Upper Nazareth, moved in on July 1. Diab, who grew up in Tamra in the Galilee, had been living in the dorms at the Hebrew University until moving here.
Almost from the start, they found they were not welcome. Someone scrawled the words “Arabs get out” on their door. Then their apartment was firebombed twice, injuring a police officer, melting the doorbell and leaving scars on the hallway and their lives.
“I’m facing racism every day in this country,” said Diab bitterly as she sat on a couch in her living room. “I felt very bad when they came to burn my house. It was too much for me.”
What happened to the Arab women, as well as a pending supreme court case involving the Jewish Agency’s refusal to lease land in a Jewish cooperative to an Arab couple, has caused many Jews here to question a fundamental tenet of Israel: That it is the Jewish homeland based on democratic principles.
“It touches the core of the very identity of Israel as a Jewish society with a growing minority of non-Jews who wish to be full partners in day-to-day life,” said Gad Ben Ari, executive vice president of the Jewish Agency, American section.
“We were not challenged on this before,” he observed. “Maybe the fact that it comes to a public debate now is a sign of maturity, that we are hopefully living in a new era in Israel in which we can begin to deal with questions [postponed] in our first 50 years because we were too busy surviving.”
For Allegra Pacheco, a Jewish human rights lawyer here who grew up in Dix Hills, L.I., the attitude of Israeli Jews toward Arabs “is a reflection of what Zionism is promoting — Jewish-only neighborhoods, Jewish privilege, instead of that all Israeli citizens can live wherever they want. I believe [Israel] should be really democratic, not Jewish democratic, so that everyone will have equal rights.”
She insisted that had Jews been the victim of the firebombing and hate campaign, “it would have been labeled anti-Semitic and investigations [would have been launched]. If it had happened to a Jewish settler in East Jerusalem, there would have been a total roundup that night of Palestinians and there would have been a media investigation and an outcry. But what happened to the Arab women happened in silence.”
Commenting on the land suit, another Jerusalem lawyer, Daniel Seidmann, argued that Israel’s decision to seize the land of Palestinians who fled during the War of Independence in 1948 was a “necessary evil that consolidated the survivability of Israel. It is mistaken to judge those actions by today’s standards, and it is morally wrong to continue as though we were still in the early ’50s.
“Israel as a state is not in mortal danger, and the Jewish ethnicity of the state is not in question. The state of siege militarily, politically and nationally is over. If Israel [continues to] place its land resources at the disposal of Jewish people as opposed to Israeli people — Jews and non-Jews — it is a horrendous mistake.”
Seidmann added that Israeli Jews are now “engaged in soul-searching” as the country moves from a “more ideological society in which Zionism is our civil religion rather than our operating ideology.”
But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s adviser on diaspora affairs, Bobby Brown, said he views what is happening in Israel today as “development, not soul-searching.”
“We have to learn how to live with minorities in the state,” he said. “We are so used to being a minority that we have to learn to be a majority.”
Regarding the firebombing of the Arab women’s home, Brown said “every society has murderers and arsonists and bad people. Society is not judged by them but by how it deals with them.
“When we have people firebombing someone’s dwelling because that person is not the same color or the same religion, that is obviously unacceptable, and if we find them, we put them in jail.”
Asked about the land case, Brown noted that about 93 percent of the land in Israel is owned by the state or by either the Jewish National Fund or the Israel Land Authority. They lease it to developers or agencies, such as the Jewish Agency, which in turn lease it to individuals. He said the government would like to see land treated like a commodity that can be bought and sold to anyone.
But he said the Arabs have ruled out selling any of their land to Jews, and that Arabs in the West Bank have been killed for such transactions.
“There has to be a free back-and-forth exchange, not a situation where one side sells and the other doesn’t,” said Brown.
He added that there are mass holdings of land, including the Temple Mount, that are owned by the Waqf, a Muslim trusteeship, and that it refuses to sell to Jews.
Ben Ari said the sale of Jewish-owned land in Israel goes to the very definition of Israel as a Jewish state.
“When we talk of Israel as being a home for Jews wherever they are, its very uniqueness is the fact [that] it belongs to the Jews,” he said.
But he said the case of the Israeli Arab, Adel Kaadan, a medical assistant at an Israeli hospital who wants to lease land in a Jewish cooperative in Katsir, is a test of the bylaws of the Jewish Agency, which forbids the leasing of land to non-Jews.
Those bylaws were written in the 1920s, said Ben Ari, when there was a “desire to build a Jewish state owned and populated by Jews and in which non-Jews would have the same rights as a minority” but not land ownership.
“That is the only way to understand the Law of Return,” he said, referring to the right of any Jew to immediate citizenship upon entering the country. “It can be interpreted as a racist law, but it has to do with the raison d’etre of the Jewish state.”
Ben Ari added that although the actions of those who harassed and firebombed the Arab women in a major city like Jerusalem must be condemned, the actions of the residents of the small Jewish community of Katsir should be understood. He compared what Kaadan was seeking to do in Katsir to a non-Jew who enters a synagogue and wishes to participate in its rituals and ceremonies.
But the executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Amos Gil, said he saw both cases as similar because in both Arab Israelis were discriminated against. He believed that security concerns and not racism is at the heart of the issue.
“Most Jews in Israel regard all Arabs, even those who are citizens of the state, as potential enemies,” he said.
Gil said the Jewish Agency bylaws should be changed so that “every citizen is able to buy land anywhere.” He noted that his organization is representing Kaadan, who at the request of Israel’s supreme court will be meeting with a mediator next week in an effort to settle the case.
At a Feb. 10 hearing, the president of the court, Aharon Barak, remarked that it was “one of the most difficult and complex judicial decisions that I have ever come across.”
“We are not ready yet for this sort of judicial decision, which has unfortunate consequences. I suggest that you reach a compromise and avoid a judicial decision, since it is hard to know which way it will go.”
Gil said that if his client reaches a compromise, the case would end, although his organization would like to see the principle pursued.But several Israeli Jews privately voiced fear that were Arabs allowed to buy land in Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries would come in and eventually buy all the land.
Gil dismissed that fear, saying: “We have to be a little more realistic. Israel is a modern state, it has a strong army and there is no fear for its existence.”
There is no fear in Manal Diab either. “I am not afraid. My plan is not to give up. It’s not our country, but we have a right to be here.”