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October 6, 2015 | 23rd Tishrei 5776

The rule of law

Galilee Diary #373, January 20, 2008

Marc J. Rosenstein


You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike, for I the Lord am your God.
-Leviticus 24:22

On Rosh Hashanah in 2000 riots broke out in Arab communities all over the north and center of Israel, including the villages around here. We could hear and see the action from our porch. Over a few days of demonstrations, 13 Arabs were killed by Israeli police. It took several years for a commission of inquiry to report that the Arab leadership was to blame for inciting demonstrations that turned violent, that the state was to blame for perpetuating the discrimination against its Arab citizens – and that the police were to blame for being unprepared and in some cases out of control. Calls for prosecution of those in the police specifically responsible for the deaths have been scuttled repeatedly, most recently last week when the attorney general ordered all cases finally closed. A demonstration was held the next day in our neighboring town of Sachnin, to express frustration at this apparent sweeping-under-the-rug. I don't usually go to demonstrations, but I felt it was the least I could do. Earlier in the day I passed a convoy of police horse-carriers heading toward Sachnin. But when I got there for the demonstration, there was a police checkpoint at the entrance from the highway – and no other visible police presence anywhere. The demonstration passed peacefully with a march through town of maybe a couple of thousand people at most, and some speeches.

I understand, of course the sensitivity of the police – not wanting to be provocative with their presence. I know the residents appreciated this. It is certainly possible to see this behavior as a form of conciliation and an expression of respect for the hurt feelings of the Arab citizens. And yet, I am bothered by it. It is part of a larger pattern, fostered by both sides, of treating the Arab communities as outside of Israeli law – and hence, in some sense, not really part of Israel. In general the place of the law in Israeli society is problematic: It is common to encounter, in both Jewish and Arab communities, Israelis who see traffic laws, littering laws, tax laws – as nuisances imposed by an unsympathetic bureaucracy, to be circumvented whenever possible. Some have suggested that this is a heritage from the countries of origin of most immigrants, where the laws of the czar, the king, or the party were perceived as not worthy of respect. However, the resistance to the rule of law – and the acquiescence of the institutions of the law in that resistance – seem especially problematic in the Arab communities.

For example: the almost total non-enforcement of traffic laws in the villages, the passivity of the authorities in the face of honor killings and clan vendettas, the lack of enforcement of zoning and dumping laws, the lack of enforcement of the prohibition of celebratory firing of guns at weddings. Arab villages are dangerous places not because of hostility to Jews – but because of a culture of wild driving, unsafe building and work conditions, and pollution. Hence they are even more dangerous for the residents than for visitors.

I have always seen Israel's granting of cultural autonomy to its Arab citizens (primarily through operating a public school system in Arabic) as praiseworthy for its sensitivity and openness. However, it is interesting to consider, after 60 years, whether it has been worth it: I wonder if the costs to the state and to the Arab minority in terms of preventing integration and hence economic advancement have not been higher than we realize. And legal "autonomy" (i.e., failure to enforce the law of the land in Arab communities), which seems to exist as a default position, seems to me not only not praiseworthy, but a huge long-term mistake.

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