Ashkelon warned over Arab worker ban, as poll shows public support

Attorney general says halting construction in kindergartens to keep out Arabs could have ‘serious legal repercussions’; dozens of parents rally to back mayor

Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni (photo credit: Flash90)
Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni (photo credit: Flash90)

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein warned Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni on Thursday against his plan to keep Arab workers from constructing bomb shelters in city kindergartens, barring them from their jobs. Weinstein said the move would have serious legal ramifications.

Shimoni’s Wednesday announcement that he would terminate the construction of shelters at any kindergarten where Arab workers were employed, and also order the posting of armed guards outside kindergartens near building sites that employed Arab construction workers, drew harsh responses from Israeli leaders Thursday.

But in Ashkelon, several dozen parents held a demonstration in support of the mayor’s move, and a poll showed a majority of Israelis backing the decision.

Weinstein wrote in a letter to Shimoni that his singling out of a specific ethnic group for the directive was “likely to have serious public and legal repercussions.”

“Not employing workers due to their being Arabs, and having a public official sending the message that employing Arabs is undesirable, does not comply with the law,” Weinstein wrote.

In his letter, the attorney general demanded an explanation from Shimoni.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Weinstein’s warning followed fierce condemnation of the Ashkelon mayor’s move from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin and politicians from both sides of the political spectrum.

But many Israelis backed the directive, which came on the heels of a Tuesday terror attack by Palestinians from East Jerusalem on a synagogue in Har Nof, in which five Israelis were killed, in a part of Jerusalem far from the violence that has wracked the city in recent weeks.

A Channel 10 poll showed 58 percent of Israelis supported Shimoni’s move, 32% did not support it and 10% did not know. The channel did not release methodology details.

Liraz Machlof, a mother of two from Ashkelon, told Channel 10 that “the wave of terror shows that you can’t trust them.”

“Its not racism, of course there are good and bad people, but none of us can point to them and say which is which,” she added. Machlof said that in the past week, parents have volunteered to take off of work to guard the kindergartens, fearing an attack.

Similar rallies for increased security in kindergartens near building sites employing Arab construction workers were held in other cities as well, according to the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

Tuesday’s terror attack seemingly set off a wave of anti-Arab sentiment, with some employers firing Arab workers out of fear, the paper reported Thursday. One event hall owner in the Tel Aviv suburb of B’nei Brak was quoted saying he let 17 Arab dishwashers go because he couldn’t trust them.

“I’m sick of providing them a living and getting an ax in the back in return,” he told the paper.

Earlier Thursday, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni asked Weinstein to investigate the illegal nature of Shimoni’s instruction, while other senior politicians lambasted the move.

“There’s no place for discrimination against Israeli Arabs. We mustn’t generalize about an entire population because of a small minority of violent and belligerent [individuals],” Netanyahu said in a statement. “The vast majority of Arab citizens of Israel are law-abiding, and those who violate the law — we work against them with determination and firmness.”

Interior Minister Gilad Erdan characterized the move as “unacceptable” and instructed ministry officials to investigate its legality.

“At this time, it is the obligation of leaders to try to calm the atmosphere and return a sense of personal safety,” the Likud minister said. “I understand the worries of the mayor and the citizens,” but they should leave the task of restoring security to the military and police.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett reiterated to the ministry’s senior staff “our policy of zero tolerance toward discrimination by religion or race.”

“I’ve ordered increased enforcement” against discrimination, Bennett told The Times of Israel Thursday, “and I intend to follow this closely.”

Bennett criticized moves such as Shimoni’s that single out Israeli Arabs. While Israel must “crack down uncompromisingly on terror” coming out of Israel’s Arab community, he said, “this does not justify racism.”

“The overwhelming majority of Israeli Arabs are loyal to the state of Israel,” Bennett insisted. “They want to integrate. We see rising numbers of them joining national service and women going to work.”

After coming under fire from both right and left-wing politicians, Shimoni told Army Radio in an interview Thursday morning that it was a temporary measure which he doesn’t regret.

“At the moment there’s a prevailing feeling among parents, [and] I was at a crossroads and had to make a decision,” Shimoni said. “I’m comfortable with this decision and I hope very much that this whole business will quickly calm down, and I will welcome [the Arab workers] back with candies.”

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