Terra Incognita: The acceptance committee conundrum
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
It should not be legal for kibbutzim founded many years ago to be allowed to uphold an institution that is considered illegal in other communities that were founded more recently.
In March 2011 the Knesset passed a law allowing small rural communities of up to 400 households in the north or south of the country to establish acceptance committees, or to maintain existing ones.. The final version of the law declared that “the acceptance committee will not refuse to accept a candidate for reasons of race, religion, sex, nationality, disability, personal status, age, parenthood, sexual proclivity, country of origin, opinions or political affiliation.”
But since the passage of this legislation, many groups, particularly those involved with the human rights lobby in Israel, have made a commotion. They threaten to petition the Supreme Court, claiming that the law is indirectly, or directly, aimed at discriminating against Arabs.
The Gush Shalom (“Peace Bloc”) organization posted on their website that “the purpose of this piece of legislation is manifestly clear: to provide a legal basis for the establishment of exclusively Jewish communal villages from which Arabs would be excluded, thus bypassing the court rulings prohibiting discrimination against Arabs.”
Writing in Haaretz, Dmitry Shumsky claimed: “There is no choice but to see the Acceptance Committee Law for communities as an expression of the anachronistic return to the open and callous ethno-centric nationalist racism of the old Europe of the previous century.”
Shlomo Molla, the lone Ethiopian MK, claimed the law’s wording, which permits rejecting applicants who do not meet certain social and cultural criteria, would result in discrimination against Ethiopians as well. Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer, vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute, has argued that the law is “neither Jewish nor democratic.”
In the months following the passing of the law, several other news items have appeared that may have a bearing on the case.
In September, Ahmed and Fatina Zabeidat were finally allowed to take over a plot of land in the community of Rakefet in the Galilee. Five years ago they were rejected by the community’s admissions committee; Fatina was found to be “too individualistic” and Ahmed was said to “lack personal sophistication.” They were deemed “socially incompatible” with the community.
After years of their case wandering its way through the Israeli court system with the support of a number of human rights organizations supported by the New Israel Fund, they won their case.
In September, Kibbutz Ein Gedi, near the Dead Sea, announced that it was accepting its first new members in 15 years. The kibbutz had declined so many applications over the years that only 176 members remained, and their average age was 62. For the new members to be accepted a total of two-thirds of the existing members had to vote for their acceptance. The situation in Ein Gedi is similar to that of most kibbutzim in Israel, which have seen their populations age and their numbers decline since the 1980s.
WHAT IS interesting about the stories of Kibbutz Ein Gedi and Rakefet is that both communities maintain longstanding acceptance committees. Rakefet’s has apparently been in place since its founding in 1981, and Ein Gedi’s since 1956.
In fact, it turns out that all the 500-odd kibbutzim in Israel have acceptance committees, as do many other communities, such as moshavim.
It might be fair to estimate that approximately 1,000 communities around the country currently use acceptance committees. Yet the law defining the legality of such committees was only passed in 2011. Why the contradiction? Why the sudden outrage about this law? In reality, the very foundation of Israel is, for better or worse, grounded in the notion of the acceptance committee.
From the very beginning, all communal settlements in Israel were heavily “socialized,” with all sorts of committees and rhetoric about the “social compatibility” of residents.
Acceptance committees have long been part of the social fabric of this country. From tiny settlements in the West Bank established after 1967 to new communities in the Misgav regional council in the Galilee to the oldest kibbutz in the country, the institution has always existed in Israel.
The acceptance committee has also been one barrier preventing the integration of many Jewish (not to mention Arab) groups into the rural environment. It isn’t the main barrier, though.
Many Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews live in urban areas because the government settled them there; they never even thought of how they might like to live on a kibbutz.
The Arab population of Israel, much of which lives in semi-rural villages, has never wanted to move to nearby Jewish communities, preferring to simply expand their existing villages.
The hypocrisy that exists in certain sectors of Israeli society raises a fake outrage about a “segregation” law, a law that merely enshrines what has always existed. The notion of the acceptance committee and all its pseudosociological findings of “social unsuitability” smacks of elitism and in many cases may hide racism behind “cultural” excuses. But this is not the main problem.
The central issue is that when the Supreme Court considers this law it should consider whether the committees currently used by 1,000 communities in Israel are also valid. It should not be legal for kibbutzim founded many years ago to be allowed to uphold an institution that is considered illegal in other communities that were founded more recently. Either all be allowed to have acceptance committees or none should. It shouldn’t be considered “racist” for some and not for others.
The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.