Swimming pool in Israel

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“I don’t hate Arabs, but I don’t want them at my swimming pools,” said Lower Galilee council chief Moti Dotan on July 28, 2016.  Dotan is the elected leader of the Lower Galilee Regional Council in northern Israel. The council represents more than 9,000 people including those on three kibbutzim, 10 moshavim and two “communal settlements.”  It is also home to several Arab villages, and the Arabs in the Galilee are citizens of Israel.

In the following two days, Dotan’s comments brought a hailstorm of criticism from Knesset members in Meretz and the Joint List (an alliance of four Arab-dominated parties in Israel) and a rebuke by the The Abraham Fund Initiatives, a nonprofit group working on peaceful coexistence between Israel’s Jewish and Arab-Palestinian populations. There were calls for Israel’s attorney general to look into Dotan’s publicly declared points of view, and a demand that he resign as the council’s chief. For his part Dotan — whose two parents survived Hitler’s concentration camps — was forced to apologize “to anyone who felt offended.” He insisted that he was “misunderstood.” How exactly was he misunderstood? In his privileged position as a council chief, Dotan simply thinks Arabs’ “culture of cleanliness isn’t the same as ours.” He urged the Arabs to build their own swimming pools.

Lower Galilee council chief Moti DotanIt’s shocking that this has happened in 2016. But where is the outrage from Canada’s Jewish community?

Not so long ago, Canadian Jews protested the fact that there were “whites only” and “Europeans only” beaches in apartheid-era South Africa, when Blacks were barred from beaches and pools.

Under the Jim Crow laws in the U.S., which remained on the books until the 1950s, Blacks were not allowed to swim with whites at public pools or beaches in virtually any major southern city or town. The objection at the time was much the same as Dotan’s — Black people were unclean. White children could catch some disease or illness from Black children who shared the water. At the time, many U.S. Jews condemned this attitude.  

In Canada in the 1930s and ’40s, signs reading, “Christians Only — Jews Not Allowed,” “No Jews Wanted,” and “Gentiles Only,” could be found at a number of Ontario beaches. This prompted the then editor of The Jewish Standard to write that banning Jews “threatened the democratic rights of all Canadians.”

The editor’s statement should resonate with Jewish Canadians today, when they read that an elected Israeli official does not want Arabs in the civic swimming pools. It’s another blow to Israel’s claim to be the only democracy in the Middle East.

This swimming pool incident comes at the same time as news that Israel’s minister of defense, Avigdor Lieberman, has publicly excoriated the Israeli Army Radio for broadcasting a program that featured the poetry of Palestine’s national poet, Mahmoud Darwish. Even a Zionist Camp Knesset member called Lieberman’s action, “a step that can only be defined as characterizing fascist regimes.”

Two weeks ago, on July 16, Israel passed a law permitting the expulsion of Knesset members for racism or supporting armed resistance against Israel. Joint List Knesset member and Palestinian Hanin Zoabi pointed out that although the law says it will be activated against any MK who expresses a racist statement, “we know that racism in Israel is just what Palestinians say, and not what the Jewish MKs say.” 

Many political observers agree with her. Originally, the law was called the Zoabi Law after MK Zoabi, who was on board one the vessels in the Turkish flotilla that tried to break Israel’s siege of Gaza in 2010. Israeli commandos raided the boat and killed 10 internationals on board.  After Israel paid compensation to the families of those killed, Zoabi said that the compensation amounted to Israel admitting its soldiers were “murderers.”  Since that time there have been demands to expel Zoabi from the Knesset. This year alone she has been suspended and fined for supporting Palestinians’ human rights.

Earlier in July, Israel passed a “transparency law” calling for non-governmental organizations that receive more than half their funding from foreign governments to disclose donors’ identities and publications. Critics say this will have a chilling effect on those who donate to help Palestinians.

Canadian supporters of Israel never tire of claiming that Israel is singled out for condemnation, but the same supporters are guilty of singling out Israel for a free pass when it comes to violations of human rights.  From calling for no Arabs in public pools, to banning Palestinian poetry on radio, to trying to expel a leading Arab parliamentarian, to trying to stop donations to rebuild Gaza which Israel has all but destroyed, Israel must be judged on its deeds.

Judy Haiven is a professor in the Management Deptartment in the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, N.S. She is a member of the Halifax chapter of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.