The Veterans Benefits Bill: Legal License to Discriminate

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On June 16, 2013, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation approved a veterans benefits bill that would give preferential treatment in employment, higher education, and housing to anyone who has served in the Israeli army. In an op-ed in Maariv, Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer and Attorney Talya Steiner warn that this law gives license to discriminate against Israel's Arab minority.

On Sunday, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation is expected to discuss a bill entitled "Benefits for Those Who Contribute to the State," which was proposed by MK Yariv Levin. At first glance, who would not support a law designed to reward veterans? Behind the populist title of this law, however, lies one of the most discriminatory bills the Knesset has ever known. The bill proposes to create an exception to the laws prohibiting discrimination in employment, obtaining services, and access to public places, and to allow preferential treatment of a person who has "contributed to the state" (according to the law, this is a reference to service in the Israel Defense Forces). According to the proposed bill, preferring veterans in these areas will not be considered prohibited discrimination.

This bill far exceeds the existing remuneration package for veterans, which includes financial grants and certain economic incentives that are given to them in the years following their completion of military service in order to facilitate their integration into civilian life. It creates a systematic hierarchy between those who serve in the army and those who do not in all areas of Israeli life, in both the public and private sectors. Although the bill is expected to affect a variety of populations, there is no doubt that it is directed primarily against the Arab population. Arab citizens of Israel, however, do not avoid or evade serving in the Israel Defense Forces; rather, it has been the declared policy of the Israeli army during the 65 years of Israel's existence not to draft Arabs for military service. It is not reasonable to refrain from recruiting soldiers from a particular population but at the same time make recruitment the only key to equal opportunity in Israeli society.

It is true that Arabs who wish to serve the state may volunteer for civil service. Because that service is voluntary, however, one should not diminish the right to equality of those who choose not to volunteer. In recent years, steps have been taken to formulate a comprehensive policy that will regulate the civil service of Israel's Arab population. It is worth mentioning that the recommendation of the Ivri Commission (The Commission for the Foundation of a Civic and National Service) was that civil service would be voluntary. This issue is complex, but we must continue to strive to reach a resolution by exhibiting sensitivity and conducting dialogue with the leaders of Israel's Arab society. Such a complicated issue most certainly will not be settled indirectly by granting a license to discriminate in all areas of life against those who do not serve in the army.

The bill also enables military service in the IDF to serve as a cover for legitimizing private discrimination against Arabs in employment and services. The phenomenon of discrimination against Arabs in Israel today is already widespread, and enforcement against it is poor. Until now, however, at least according to the official book of statutes this type of discrimination is forbidden. The bill in question will change this reality, and will officially permit and sanction such practices. Up until now, the owner of a restaurant, supermarket, or amusement park was forbidden from putting up a sign saying "No Arabs allowed" at the entrance; if this bill is passed, however, it will be possible to restrict entry to "those who contributed to the state only," thus keeping the place free of Arabs. Incidents such as the designation of separate days for Jewish and Arab schoolchildren at the Superland amusement park, which was an exceptional and embarrassing case, will become a matter of routine, and will be permitted by law.

A substantially more limited bill, which dealt only with preferring applicants who served in the military for Civil Service jobs, was shot down two years ago by the Attorney General, who issued a rare, direct appeal to the Prime Minister asking that he prevent the further advancement of the law. At that time, the proposed legislation was opposed by every professional body, including the Ministry of Justice and the legal adviser of the Knesset.

The very fact that this bill was put forward causes severe damage to Israel. If the bill is accepted, and license to discriminate against minorities is granted, Israel's statute book will be shamefully tarnished. 

On June 13, 2013, Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer, Attorney Talya Steiner, and Attorney Amir Fuchs submitted to the Ministerial Committee on Legislation a legal opinion on the proposed bill to increase benefits to those who have contributed to the State of Israel by serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

Read the full text of the legal opinion (Hebrew) 

Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer is Vice President of Research at the Israel Democracy Institute. Attorney Talya Steiner is a researcher at IDI and the author of the recent policy paper Combating Discrimination against Arabs in the Israeli Workforce.

This article was published in Hebrew in the Maariv daily newspaper on June 16, 2013.