Misgav, Israel — This rural, laidback municipality, spread over 44,000 acres in the Galilee hills, is home to 29 Jewish villages, six Arab Bedouin villages and one of the few mixed Jewish-Arab schools in Israel.
Because of this, its residents resent being called racists. But that is just how they have been portrayed frequently in the Israeli press. Ever since the Knesset passed a law in March that gave villages such as these the right to screen who may live in them for “social suitability,” the residents of Misgav have been cited as prime examples of the law’s alleged discriminatory intent.
But Misgav’s leaders and many of its residents — Arab and Jewish alike — say they have no desire to exclude Arabs. Rather, they insist that acceptance committees are a tool in a battle they are fighting together — a battle against urbanization.
“We are concerned about urban sprawl, which in the context of the central Galilee means villages that want to remain villages becoming, instead, places for real estate speculation and people who don’t maintain the communal lifestyle,” one of Misgav’s deputy mayors, Daniel Ivry, told the Forward.
Misgav is located in an area that borders the Jewish city of Karmiel and the Arab cities of Shefa-‘Amr, Sakhnin and Tamra. Both Jewish and Arab residents of Misgav villages are keen to safeguard the rural lifestyle and to avoid having them become satellite suburbs of the towns, Ivry said.
“We’re talking about empowerment of rural micro-communities,” said Ivry, who argued that the only way of ensuring that villages do not become magnets for people who want the rural setting without communal responsibilities is by letting the villages define a special character for themselves.
The new law, one of the most controversial passed in recent years, gave Misgav and other communal villages of 400 families or fewer in the Galilee and Negev — some 111, in total — the right to use the social suitability criterion to hand-pick their residents.
Even though the statute states that the committees selecting residents may not consider any ethnic criteria, critics say there are many ways of devising ostensibly nonethnic criteria that effectively exclude non-Jews. It was Misgav that catapulted acceptance committees onto the national agenda in 2006, when one of its villages, Rakefet, refused residency to Ahmed and Fahina Zubeidat, an Israeli-Arab couple, on grounds of “unsuitability.” Misgav then reignited the controversy two years ago, when Haaretz reported that two of its other villages had made Zionism a prerequisite for residency. Asked how an ideological criterion such as requiring its residents to be Zionists would not inevitably exclude Arabs, Ivry replied, “There are definitely Arab Zionists,” and pointed out that some residents of Misgav’s Arab villages serve in the Israel Defense Forces.
In April, an Arab family turned away by one of those committees, here in Misgav, brought a petition before the high court, asking it to overturn the law.
With some exceptions, Israel’s urban property market is, in principle, open to all, though in practice, discrimination takes place there. The new law applies only to Israel’s kibbutzim and moshavim, which are cooperatives where the land is held communally to varying degrees, and residents insist on carefully choosing their members via selection committees. And it applies to the country’s yishuvei kehillati, or communal villages, such as those in Misgav. These are cooperatives on paper, but for all practical purposes, residents live independently.
In the Bedouin villages of Misgav, opposition to urbanization is about protecting hard-won gains. Before the mid-1980s, in the eyes of the law, the Bedouins’ homes were simply collections of structures erected by squatters, not legally registered villages. This meant that residents here and elsewhere received no public services, like running water, sewage and electricity. As in the high-profile case of Al-Arakib, a Bedouin village in the Negev demolished last year by Israeli officials, all building was illegal and could be destroyed at will by government authorities.
The Municipality of Misgav helped its six Bedouin villages to become legalized, and all the infrastructure that they had lacked before is now in place or under construction, largely paid for by state funds. In Dmeide, home to 500 members of the Abu-Dauf clan, there is a building boom with virtually every house under development, and construction is under way at a large public-funded mosque.
Dmeide resident Muhammad Abu-Dauf, who serves as deputy mayor alongside Ivry, is insistent that his village’s newfound attractiveness shouldn’t bring an influx that leads to a loss of its clan identity. “The tribe is the tribe,” he said. “We are a family that have lived for years together and want to remain together. Even if it’s other Bedouins [wanting to move in], we don’t want it.” Currently, the Israel Land Administration’s policy is on Abu-Dauf’s side: It makes land there, and in many other Bedouin villages, available only to people born there. And in his view, selection committees in Jewish villages are a fair way for residents there to similarly exercise some control over their character. “Both Jewish and Bedouin areas need to maintain the difference between a village and a city,” he said.
Other Dmeide residents interviewed also voiced support for the selection committee law. “It doesn’t bother me. Every village here has its own mentality,” said Ahmed Abu-Dauf, a 55-year-old retired factory worker.
He was referring to the cultural mix of Misgav’s villages. They include Moreshet, which is Orthodox; Ma’ale Tzviya, which follows the spiritual philosophy of the Template Foundation (formally known as the Emin Foundation), and Har Halutz, which was founded by American Reform Jews.
“The issue here is not racist at all, it’s cultural,” argued Aryeh Erner, secretary of Har Halutz. In the Jewish villages, some of the biggest enthusiasts for the selection committees are former city dwellers who want to maintain the difference between their old and new environments. “There is a strong sense of mutual support, and we need to maintain that,” said Asnat Bobrov, a 40-year-old dietician who grew up in Herzliya and moved to the village of Yuvalim 10 years ago. In her view, the selection committees are fair tools for screening people for community-mindedness, which she says is essential for village life.
But not all residents take this view. Atid Misgav (Future for Misgav), a local residents’ alliance, has gathered 70 signatures against acceptance committees and co-sponsored the high court petition against the controversial law with both the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and The Abraham Fund Initiatives.
Uri Sabach, a leader of Future for Misgav, gives short shrift to the claim that the acceptance committees are about preventing urbanization. “This is not the real problem that the law is going to solve,” he said. “The real problem is that we don’t want Arabs in the villages.”
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org