PM, senior ministers pan Ashkelon mayor for barring Arab workers

Rights group to sue coastal city’s mayor for discrimination, but Shimoni says he’s comfortable with his decision

Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni (left) with Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, May 2014. (Photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash 90)
Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni (left) with Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, May 2014. (Photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash 90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday tore into Ashkelon’s mayor for his intention to halt construction on bomb shelters in city kindergartens in order to keep Arab workers out of the sites.

Netanyahu joined a chorus of senior Israeli politicians criticizing Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni’s announcement on Wednesday via Facebook that he would terminate 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.

“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],” the prime minister 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.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni asked Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein to investigate the illegal nature of Shimoni’s instruction.

“This is an order that undermines the foundation principles of of equality and prevention of discrimination and stands in defiance of the law of equality rights in the workplace” she said. “Discrimination against employees or job seekers on the basis of nationality or religion is prohibited, and should be dealt with to the full extent of the law.”

Livni said later that signs of public support for the move were “not surprising.” People are reeling under the impact of terror attacks, she said, but those in authority need to take the right, legal positions. “The mayor of Ashkelon unfortunately has not fulfilled this obligation.”

President Reuven Rivlin also spoke out against the move by Shimoni and said that “the mobilization of the political system against the decision is a determined message to ourselves and to the world.”

“This is real proof that even while enduring murderous terrorism we do not compromise on our most important values,” he added.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid said that notion to stop employing Arabs for work in Israel abandons the ideal of coexistence.

“The calls to stop employing Arabs in Israel are racist,” he said. “It is giving in to terror, because we are giving up control of our lives and a our day to day living to the hands of extremists instead of supporting coexistence.”

Earlier on Thursday an Arab rights organization said that it would sue Ashkelon’s mayor for his decision to bar Arab workers in the coastal city.

“If there were Jewish workers, they wouldn’t employ Arabs,” the Mossawa Center, which advocates for Arab civil rights, said in a statement. “Laying off the Arab workforce will paralyze services and result in losses of over NIS 100 million a day.”

The Mossawa Center joined numerous others in pointing out that the move was patently illegal according to the Employment (Equal Opportunities) Law, which prohibits employers from discriminating between employees on the basis of race or religion.

Shimoni apparently made the move in a bid to secure Ashkelon after five people were killed by two East Jerusalem Arabs in a terror attack in the capital Tuesday.

He said the measure was intended “to increase the personal security of parents, children and the educational staff,” Israeli news site Walla reported.

Aside from the likely illegality of the move, Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah charged that the move was irresponsible at a time when “the fabric of coexistence in Israel in danger.”

“Public representatives are obligated to show leadership and reduce the flames rather than fan them,” he said in a statement Thursday. “Staining an entire community of citizens and marking them as a potential danger threatens to tear Israeli society apart and do the job of terrorists for them. I call on the mayor to retract.”

Without mentioning names, Shimoni’s counterpart in Tel Aviv, Mayor Ron Huldai, described calls to fire Arab workers as shameful.

“I am ashamed of the calls heard in recent days to fire Arabs simply because of their origin,” he said. “We, the Jews, especially must be careful to avoid this behavior. I am proud of the fact that the Tel Aviv municipality employs hundreds of dedicated Arab workers and so shall it be in the future.”

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.”

But Avivit Simani, chair of the city’s Parents Association, said parents were not consulted in any systematic way.

“I want to clarify unequivocally that the mayor made the decision to remove Arab workers from kindergartens without notifying the municipal Parents Association and without consulting with representatives of parents groups,” Simani said in a statement.

Parents had called the mayor asking for additional security guards to be placed at kindergartens, Simani said, but “we never raised the expulsion of [Arab] workers.”

Jewish-Arab relations in Israel have been particularly tense in recent months, during which several violent attacks took place.

On Tuesday, two Palestinian cousins armed with meat cleavers, knives and a pistol killed four worshipers and a policeman at a Jerusalem synagogue. Security forces shot the terrorists dead. In the weeks prior, Arab Israelis in the Galilee rioted after police shot dead a Kafr Kanna resident who attacked a police vehicle.

Police in Jerusalem beefed up security around the city following Tuesday’s attack, and officials discussed posting armed guards outside kindergartens.

Numerous other lawmakers slammed Shimoni’s announcement on Wednesday, including MK Issawi Frej (Meretz), MK Nachman Shai (Labor) and Arab-Israeli MK Ahmad Tibi (Ra’am Ta’al), who suggested Shimoni should be prosecuted for racist incitement.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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