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The Israeli Declaration of Independence states that "the State of Israel ... will maintain full equality of political rights for all its citizens without distinction to religion, race and sex, will ensure freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture." And yet, fifty years later, this remains a dream unfulfilled; in many perspectives, we have not stood by this mandate. To this day, Israel has neither a written constitution nor a bill of rights to protect human rights and the right to equality. The Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, passed two laws in 1992, known as the Basic Laws, "Human Dignity and Liberty," and "Freedom of Vocation," which effectively have constitutional force. And yet, even as many consider these Basic Laws to be revolutionary, they do not yet protect all fundamental rights.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Israel's leading civil and human-rights organization, has faced these challenges as an independent, non-partisan movement, by focusing its activities on legal and legislative work, and on educational and public outreach activities, dealing with the whole spectrum of rights and liberties to people under Israeli sovereignty. The Israeli government still has far to go in many areas to provide equal rights for its citizens and residents. Discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, disabilities, or sexual orientation is still too commonplace in Israel. Inequalities exist in the provision of social services, whether in the area of welfare services, health insurance, or housing. Half of the employees meant to receive minimum wage do not, and the minimum wage law is often not implemented to rectify this. Police brutality is still a serious problem, despite increasing awareness regarding the issue. The rights of detainees and prisoners are also violated, despite the fact that Israel is signatory to international conventions intended to safeguard these rights. The monopoly of the Jewish Orthodox philosophy within the religious establishment, founded and sponsored by the state, violates the basic rights of coexistence, free exercise of religion and the basic right of freedom of religion. While ACRI is involved in these various issues to protect civil rights and advance social justice, this article will focus on three major areas: Arab citizens, foreign workers, and the Ministry of the Interior's actions regarding family reunification.

Reverses in Equality for Arab Citizens

The right to equality is most severely compromised by rampant discrimination against Israel's Arab citizens. Twenty percent of Israel's population is Arab, comprising more than one million citizens. Policies reducing gaps in resource allocation and encouragement of social rights, which began under the Rabin-Peres administration, have been halted over the last two years. For the first 16 years of Israel's existence, this significant Arab minority was treated as a potentially hostile segment of the population and was, therefore, under military rule, which violated many of their basic rights. In present times, while the Arab citizens generally enjoy basic rights, such as freedom of expression and political representation, discrimination against them exists in almost all spheres and is particularly acute regarding education, living conditions and vocation within the public service. It is common knowledge that the principle of equality with regard to the Arab population demands not only the equalization of resources for Jews and Arabs, but also increased allocation to the Arab sector to compensate for the huge budgetary gaps of the past. However, in reality, many government ministries are simply ignoring the needs of the Arab minority.
Another major issue, which has attracted greater public attention this past year, is the long-standing state policy denying equality to Arab citizens in the realm of land ownership and access to housing. For the last 70 years, the government and the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organization, have been cooperating in order to protect state land under Jewish control. The purpose of this cooperation was, and still is, to prevent Arab citizens from ever being able to lease those lands. According to repeated reports in the press, the government and the Jewish Agency are drafting a plan to expand the amount of land which is under Jewish Agency ownership. ACRI wrote to the Attorney General warning him that implementation of such a plan not only perpetuates past discrimination, but would expand this unlawful policy to a greater scope.
With regard to the land that is already under the control of the Jewish Agency, ACRI is leading a precedent-setting case which is pending in the Supreme Court. Adel Ka'adan, an Israeli Arab, who is employed as a nurse in a local hospital, his wife, Iman, and their three daughters currently live in the Arab village of Baka al-Gharbiyya. In an attempt to improve their standard of living, the family applied to purchase land in a nearby community, where plots for building one's own home were being offered at bargain prices. When they came to inquire about the land, they were told that they could not purchase land in the town because the land was owned by the Jewish Agency, which can only be contracted to Jews. At the family's request, ACRI filed suit in the High Court of Justice, submitting one of the most important petitions in its history. Chief Justice Aharon Barak recently commented that this case is one of the most difficult judicial decisions he has come across in his entire legal career, and that the consequences are incalculable. He offered the parties to solve the issue via mediation, but after this process came to a standstill, the case returned to the court's jurisdiction.

Against Discrimination

Arabic and Hebrew are the two official languages of the State of Israel. Nevertheless, the various government authorities legally required to release information in Arabic routinely disregard their obligation. Additionally, while Hebrew is a required subject within the education system for all, Arabic is an elective course for Jewish students.
There is no law forbidding discrimination in the provision of services, in the sale of products, or in admission to places open to the public. Citizens who are victims of this kind of discrimination, mostly Arabs or Sephardi Jews (Jews who originate from Arab countries), have limited legal recourse to defend their rights. While they are often prevented from entering discos, pubs, swimming pools and other entertainment facilities, and even from renting and buying apartments, no helpful direct statute exists to challenge the offending party.
ACRI has proposed a law forbidding discrimination in sales, services and access to facilities open to the public, for which the Ministry of Justice has expressed support. In 1995, ACRI successfully initiated the amendment to the Equality in the Workplace Law, forbidding employers from discrimination based on gender, race or religion. ACRI is currently applying this law in a labor suit on behalf of two Arab students whose applications were denied, allegedly on the basis of their race.

The Rights of Foreign Workers

In the past few years, hundreds of thousands of foreign workers have arrived in Israel. Some estimate that their number is currently as high as 200,000. Although the Israeli government encouraged the arrival of these workers, it did not make provisions for ensuring that their rights would be protected. As a result, conditions prevail such that employers can easily violate the rights of foreign workers, realizing that the workers have extremely limited means by which to challenge them. A serious violation of rights is connected to the "binding" of workers to a specific employer via their passports, residency and work permits. This creates dependency, and prevents the worker from finding another employer, even if the current employer mistreats him and violates the law with regard to his civil and labor rights.
Additionally, such fundamental social rights as health care are highly problematic regarding foreign workers. There is still no public health insurance for foreign workers, and they are supposed to be insured through their employers by private insurance companies. However, these companies act according to their own economic interests and are not practically subject to government supervision. ACRI's stand is that foreign workers should be insured according to the National Health Insurance Law, with some adjustments. Such an arrangement would ensure that foreign workers receive medical care as necessary, and would save the expenses hospitals incur in exacting payments from private insurance companies. It should be emphasized that the children of foreign workers are also not insured under the National Health Insurance Law, and are thus discriminated against, relative to Israeli children, in violation of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child to which Israel is a signatory.
Finally, foreign workers are subject to police brutality and violations of due process during searches and arrests conducted by the authorities for illegal aliens. ACRI issued a petition regarding violations of detainees' rights, which required the state to bring each foreign detainee before a judge prior to his arrest or deportation.

Interior Ministry Withdraws Citizenship
and Prevents Family Reunification

The right to family reunification is not protected by Israeli law as is common in Western countries. The only place where this right is mentioned is in the Law of Return, which is applicable only to Jews or to relatives of Jews seeking to immigrate to Israel; only the Interior Ministry has the authority to permit family reunification. The Ministry is making it increasingly difficult for non-Jewish spouses of Israeli citizens who have applied for citizenship. In many of those cases, the Interior Ministry demands that the spouse issuing the request leave the state and wait for the answer to his appeal abroad, for a period which takes more than five years. The restrictions affect especially immigrants from the former Soviet Union and non-Israeli spouses of those who reside in the occupied territories. ACRI challenges this policy in petitions at the High Court of Justice.
ACRI is one of the human-rights organizations struggling against the Interior Ministry's attempts to deny identity cards and right of residence in the city to Palestinian Jerusalemites. The aim appears to be to reduce the Palestinian population in Jerusalem through the blatant misuse of residency laws. In 1998 alone, 788 Palestinians have had their residency revoked in the process of quiet deportation.

Conclusion

Though the peace process is still Israel's top priority issue, public awareness is focusing increasingly upon the internal character of Israeli society. The quantity of NGOs has multiplied, and they play an increasingly central role in public debate, a fundamental ingredient for a vibrant civil society. The positive effects of these developments are beginning to reach even the political arena, signifying how the public has developed deep sensitivities regarding state self-image. The agenda of the parties in the May 1999 general elections for the Knesset must include internal questions, such as advancing social justice and creating equal conditions for groups that are discriminated against in Israeli society. However, the extent to which the public demands real social change remains an open question and it is this which determines the situation of individuals and groups that lack the power and resources to fight for their own equality.

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