Benjamin Netanyahu, the arrogant Israeli prime minister, is always tempted to repeat — erroneously — to foreign audiences that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. All he has to do is look around his country and see how some Israeli citizens, Jews and non-Jews, including women face discrimination in their communities.
This has lately come to the attention of some Washingtonians and neighbouring communities who were shocked to see that Montgomery County, which borders a sophisticated quarter of the capital city of Washington D.C. and where many prominent American Jews live, has been engaged in establishing a sister-city relationship with a notorious Israeli city. The actual sponsor of the programme is the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
The credit for this revelation goes in part to two women, Susan Kerin and Samira Hussain, both members respectively of the Human Rights Matter! Committee and the Middle East American Advisory Group (MEAAG), two public, but not official, bodies.
Both, however, complain that they have been virtually excluded from restricted official discussions about the county’s projected plan to establish ties with Beit Shemesh (House of the Sun) which is located west of occupied Jerusalem.
“I think that delegating this programme to a private entity has created a lot of problems, most particularly a lack of transparency,” Kerin explained. “Montgomery County has public committees consisting of volunteers who are appointees of the county executive.”
Other activists suspect that county officials may be marking time in the hope that the recent uproar against the sister-city relationship will eventually die down and they can proceed with their controversial plans.
This has meanwhile led to the launching of the Human Rights Matter! campaign whose membership include hundreds of peace activists and the local Pax Christi community. Mossawa (Equality) Centre, an advocacy group for Arab citizens of Israel as well as Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire, are also weighty supporters.
The notoriety of Beit Shemesh, a city of 86,000, mostly ultra-orthodox citizens, is well-documented, in the US and in Israel. The American relationship with the Jewish city started after a visit in 2007 by Montgomery County Chief Executive Isiah Legget. However, the final decision about the relationship is said to be up to the governor, Martin O’Malley, who remains non-committal in public.
The appalling situation in Beit Shemesh and its neighbourhood of Mateh Yahuda has shocked many in the Washington area, becoming as The Washington Post described it, a ‘a hot-button issue’. In fact, Human Rights Matter! was launched as a challenge to the county’s projected undertaking in Beit Shemesh.
In a letter written to the governor by Human Rights Matter! last January, Beit Shemesh was said to have “sustained an ongoing discriminatory-driven hate-violence between the Orthodox Haredi community [which represents 40 per cent of the population] and the more secular Jewish citizens”.
Kerin noted in a public account that the ultra-orthodox assailants have “spat on [school] girls, thrown eggs and bags of excrement and yelled insults, including ‘sluts’ or ‘shiksas’ [non-Jewish women] at them”. Haredi extremists have also assaulted women passengers for sitting next to male passengers in buses, and have firebombed a pizza shop where sexes mingled. The Haredi community even bans women from walking on sidewalks next to their synagogues.
Another activist noted the absence of Arabs from living in the city although Arabs constitute 20 per cent of the Israeli population. A large Ethiopian Jewish community has complained to the Knesset against discrimination by the ultra-orthodox segregationist community there.
In another slap on the face, a UN report released recently indicated that Israel’s segregationist policies were likewise appalling.. It noted that racial prejudice can be found in almost every facet of Israeli life.
Key Israeli legislation was also considered to be counter to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which states that any doctrine of superiority based on racial differentiation is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous.
The 183-page report, released this month by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), pointed out that Israel law does not contain a proper definition of racial discrimination.
CERD is a body of legal specialists who monitor the implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. The report did not deal with the Israel-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
But whether these two slaps would amount to a knockout is too early to tell, but it is another sign that Israel is slowly losing its magic among key westerners.
George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org