The United Nations General Assembly may well have been wrong in 1975 to equate Zionism with racism, since many early Israelis rejected extremist notions regarding separation of Jews from Arabs. But today a virulent form of Zionism is turning Israel in the direction of an intolerant apartheid state.
This ultra-conservative strain of Judaism is now represented at senior levels of Benjamin Netanyahu's government, especially in the Housing Ministry, which recently humiliated Vice President Joe Biden by announcing 1,600 more Jewish housing units in East Jerusalem as Biden was arriving to reaffirm U.S. solidarity with Israel.
An under-reported element of the flare-up between the Obama administration and Netanyahu's government is that Israel's Housing Minister Ariel Atias, who sprang the announcement during Biden's visit, is a religious fanatic whose ultra-Orthodox Judaism is about as intolerant of others as many extreme forms of Islam are.
Atias, a rising star in the religious Shas Party, has publicly called for imposing legal and physical constraints on the housing choices of Israel's Arab population. But his demands for segregation do not stop at Arabs. He also targets secular Jews who don't follow strict religious rules.
Last July, Atias told a conference of the Israel Bar Association that Israel's Arab population must be prevented from buying homes in many parts of Israel.
"I see [it] as a national duty to prevent the spread of a population that, to say the least, does not love the state of Israel," Atias declared. "If we go on like we have until now, we will lose the Galilee. Populations that should not mix are spreading there. I don't think that it is appropriate [for them] to live together."
Atias also spoke favorably about relying on aggressive ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as Haredis, to keep the Arabs in line.
Citing Jewish-Arab tensions that broke out in the town of Acre, Atias recounted a conversation he had with the city's mayor about how Acre could be saved. Atias said:
"He told me 'bring a bunch of Haredis and we'll save the city, even if I lose my political standing.' He told me that Arabs are living in Jewish buildings and running them out."
In Atias's vision for Israel, certain lands would be sold to Arabs, others to ultra-Orthodox Jews, and still others to secular Jews, creating a nation segregated along inter- and intra-religious lines.
"I, as an ultra-Orthodox Jew, don't think that religious Jews should have to live in the same neighborhood as secular couples, so as to avoid unnecessary friction," Atias explained.
Some of that friction between the ultra-Orthodox Jews and secular Jews relates to the anger of the ultra-Orthodox Haredis against Jewish women dressing in ways that are considered immodest or against secular Jews who don't follow strict rules against using machinery on the Sabbath.
These tensions are similar to those in strict Islamic states, where morality police arrest or humiliate women whose bodies are not adequately covered.
Atias noted that the ultra-Orthodox Haredis "need synagogues and do not want any traffic on Shabbat. Seculars demand cultural facilities."
Favoring His Own
Inside Israel, Atias has come under criticism for favoring his fellow ultra-Orthodox Jews in opening more new housing units to them than to secular Jews and surely to Arabs.
"There is a severe housing crisis among the young ultra-Orthodox couples, and in the general population," Atias said, explaining his thinking. "And since some 5,000 to 6,000 religious couples get married every year, a problem arises because they require a certain kind of community life that goes along with their lifestyle."
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