The United Nations General Assembly may well have been wrong in 1975 to equate Zionism with racism, since many early Israelis rejected extremist notions regarding separation of Jews from Arabs. But today a virulent form of Zionism is turning Israel in the direction of an intolerant apartheid state.
This ultra-conservative strain of Judaism is now represented at senior levels of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, especially in the Housing Ministry, which recently humiliated Vice President Joe Biden by announcing 1,600 more Jewish housing units in East Jerusalem as Biden was arriving to reaffirm U.S. solidarity with Israel.
An under-reported element of the flare-up between the Obama administration and Netanyahu’s government is that Israel’s Housing Minister Ariel Atias, who sprang the announcement during Biden’s visit, is a religious fanatic whose ultra-Orthodox Judaism is about as intolerant of others as many extreme forms of Islam are.
Atias, a rising star in the religious Shas Party, has publicly called for imposing legal and physical constraints on the housing choices of Israel’s Arab population. But his demands for segregation do not stop at Arabs. He also targets secular Jews who don’t follow strict religious rules.
Last July, Atias told a conference of the Israel Bar Association that Israel’s Arab population must be prevented from buying homes in many parts of Israel.
"I see [it] as a national duty to prevent the spread of a population that, to say the least, does not love the state of Israel," Atias declared. "If we go on like we have until now, we will lose the Galilee. Populations that should not mix are spreading there. I don't think that it is appropriate [for them] to live together."
Atias also spoke favorably about relying on aggressive ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as Haredis, to keep the Arabs in line.
Citing Jewish-Arab tensions that broke out in the town of Acre, Atias recounted a conversation he had with the city’s mayor about how Acre could be saved. Atias said:
“He told me 'bring a bunch of Haredis and we'll save the city, even if I lose my political standing.' He told me that Arabs are living in Jewish buildings and running them out."
In Atias’s vision for Israel, certain lands would be sold to Arabs, others to ultra-Orthodox Jews, and still others to secular Jews, creating a nation segregated along inter- and intra-religious lines.
“I, as an ultra-Orthodox Jew, don't think that religious Jews should have to live in the same neighborhood as secular couples, so as to avoid unnecessary friction,” Atias explained.
Some of that friction between the ultra-Orthodox Jews and secular Jews relates to the anger of the ultra-Orthodox Haredis against Jewish women dressing in ways that are considered immodest or against secular Jews who don’t follow strict rules against using machinery on the Sabbath.
These tensions are similar to those in strict Islamic states, where morality police arrest or humiliate women whose bodies are not adequately covered.
Atias noted that the ultra-Orthodox Haredis “need synagogues and do not want any traffic on Shabbat. Seculars demand cultural facilities.”
Inside Israel, Atias has come under criticism for favoring his fellow ultra-Orthodox Jews in opening more new housing units to them than to secular Jews and surely to Arabs.
"There is a severe housing crisis among the young ultra-Orthodox couples, and in the general population,” Atias said, explaining his thinking. “And since some 5,000 to 6,000 religious couples get married every year, a problem arises because they require a certain kind of community life that goes along with their lifestyle."
Commenting on Atias’s statements, some leftist members of the Knesset have deplored the racism implicit in his policies.
"Racism is spreading throughout the government, and Minister Atias is the latest to express it,” said Hadash Chairman Mohammad Barakeh. “The government and everyone in it must realize that Arabs are living in their homeland and they have no other. If there is any foreign element in the Galilee, it is not the Arabs." [For details, see Haaretz.com, and Ynet.com, July 2, 2009]
Last September, in announcing favorable housing decisions for his ultra-Orthodox brethren, Atias reaffirmed his goal of achieving a segregated society.
"I've said it in the past and I say it again: I don't think populations can be mixed together,” Atias told Haaretz. “A Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] population needs to live in locations with other Haredim, so we don't descend to sectarian violence, as is happening right now in Kiryat Yovel in Jerusalem. ...
“I advocate the separation of population groups as a healthy solution.”
The 39-year-old Atias is regarded as a poorly educated politician who travels little, if at all, outside Israel. Still, he is an emerging powerbroker in the Shas Party, which represents a key element of Netanyahu’s Likud coalition. Atias, who previously was in charge of inspecting kosher meat and who has advocated censorship of the Internet, was placed second on the Shas candidate list in 2009.
In Israel, the position of Housing Minister also is very important, given the significance of settlements to the concept of a Greater Israel and to the peace process. Past housing ministers have included future prime ministers, including Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu himself.
Atias’s intolerance toward the mixing of Arabs and Jews and even Jews of different religious orientation goes a long way to explain the refusal of Netanyahu’s government to pull back on expansion of Jewish settlements into traditionally Arab lands. To do so would risk rupturing the governing coalition.
Criticism of Israeli housing policies often draws angry responses from right-wing Israelis and American neoconservatives.
For instance, the Obama administration’s complaint about Atias’s housing decision during Biden’s visit prompted Netanyahu’s brother-in-law, Hagai Ben Artzi, to label Obama as “anti-Semitic,” adding: “it's not that Obama doesn't sympathize with [Netanyahu]. He doesn't sympathize with the people of Israel."
Netanyahu quickly distanced himself from Artzi’s comment.
American neocons also have blamed Obama primarily for the housing dispute with Netanyahu's government.
On Tuesday, the Washington Post’s neocon editorialists wrote, “It has been a little startling – and a little puzzling – to see Mr. Obama deliberately plunge into another public brawl with the Jewish state. ... The dispute’s dramatic escalation ... seems to have come at the direct impetus of Mr. Obama.”
On March 2, Post columnist Richard Cohen labeled as anti-Semitic pretty much anyone who objects to Israel’s discrimination against Palestinians. Israel “is not motivated by racism,” Cohen declared. “That’s more than can be said for many of its critics.”
Cohen was especially outraged by anyone who would compare the plight of Palestinians in and around Israel to South African blacks under “apartheid.”
Yet, while the parallel is far from perfect, Atias’s plans for segregated neighborhoods for Arabs, for secular Jews and for ultra-Orthodox Jews does sound a lot like apartheid.
Even thoughtful Israelis are beginning to grapple with the moral and political dilemma of Jewish settlers seizing Palestinian lands on the basis of Biblical mandates in which God supposedly granted all the territory to the Israelites.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a Labor Party representative in Netanyahu’s government, has warned that the extreme Zionist vision of a Greater Israel could lead to either a single state with a Palestinian majority or special rules to limit Palestinian civil rights.
“If, and as long as between the Jordan and the sea, there is only one political entity, named Israel, it will end up being either non-Jewish or non-democratic,” Barak said at a recent security conference. “If the Palestinians vote in elections, it is a bi-national state, and if they don't, it is an apartheid state.”
However, to the Post’s Cohen, you are deserving of the ugly charge of anti-Semitism if you suggest that some form of apartheid looms in Israel’s future if it continues down its current path.
Cohen scolded Henry Siegman, who wrote an op-ed for the Financial Times and mentioned the word apartheid several times. Noting that Siegman was a former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, Cohen conceded that “anti-Semitism is not the issue here.”
Cohen then added, however, “anti-Semitism is not so easily dismissed with others.”
Such knee-jerk defenses of Israel by influential American neocons apparently have emboldened Netanyahu and his coalition allies like Shas to believe they can do pretty much whatever they wish regardless of the desires – or interests – of the United States.
Other Middle East experts believe Atias and his Shas Party may be oblivious to the political repercussions in Washington. As The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg told New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, “It’s not entirely clear to me that the Shas Party knows who Joe Biden is or cares.”
Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, told Dowd that Israel’s ultra-conservative religious groups were “killing every option that comes out that has peace in its objective.”
Still, with U.S. neocons protecting Netanyahu’s back regardless of the reckless actions of his Shas allies, his government seems destined to plunge ever deeper into ethnic and religious segregation.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on March 19, 2010.