Israeli mayor draws fire with vow to bar Arabs from school-building projects

Many Israeli politicians have condemned the move by the mayor of Askhelon to prevent Palestinian laborers from working on kindergarten construction sites. His action comes amid heightened tensions after several Arab attacks on Jews.

Tsafrir Abayov/AP
Palestinian laborers wait at an Israeli checkpoint on Nov. 11, after a day of work in the Israeli city of Ashkelon.

An Israeli mayor’s decision to bar Arab workers from construction projects at public kindergartens has touched off a firestorm of criticism across Israel.

At least a dozen Israeli politicians, from the leftist opposition leader to prominent right-wing figures, denounced the move by Itamar Shimoni, mayor of the southern city of Ashkelon, as discriminatory, undemocratic, and unjustified despite heightened security concerns following a spate of Arab attacks on Jews.

"We are experiencing a difficult time, a wave of terror, but we know that 99.9 percent of Arab Israelis are loyal to Israel," Economy Minister Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Jewish Home party said today. "There is a very small minority that is against us. As economy minister, I will not allow any worker to be harmed based on religion or race – this will not happen in Israel."

The prime minister, president, and a number of other government ministers and lawmakers made similar comments, and Mr. Bennett’s ministry issued a strong warning to employers to abide by the Equal Opportunities Law after receiving inquiries from a “not insignificant” number of employers looking to terminate Arab workers “solely on the basis of race." Justice Minister Tzipi Livni asked the attorney general to look into the legality of the mayor’s decision.

But many citizens praised Mayor Shimoni for announcing on his Facebook page that the city would cease work carried out by Israeli Arabs on building bomb shelters at kindergartens, citing parent concerns.

“Good for you for saying out loud what 90 percent [of citizens] want,” wrote supporter Eran Kraus.

One of the comments that got the most likes said, “Good for you! But why stop…? Just replace all of the workers with Israeli Jews!!!! Enough with Arab workers [in our areas]!”

An Israeli cartoon, meanwhile, mocked indignation over the policy by showing an Arab construction worker equipped with a suicide belt, axe, meat cleaver, and a rocket before a door reading, “Municipality of Ashkelon: Do not enter.” The man, standing above a bloody body in a Jewish prayer shawl, yells “Racists!” 

The cartoon testifies to high passions two days after two Palestinians from East Jerusalem entered a synagogue wielding axes, a meat cleaver, and a gun, killing four rabbis before being killed themselves in a shootout with police.

But even as Israeli leaders work to ensure greater security for their citizens, they were at pains today to emphasize that gruesome acts are the work of a few and do not merit the blanket condemnation of Israel’s 20-percent Arab minority.

“Public representatives are obligated to show leadership and reduce the flames rather than fan them,” said Knesset member Ofer Shelah of the centrist Yesh Atid party 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.”

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