To keep Arabs out, a posh country club in the Israeli town of Kochav Yair-Tzur Yigal has changed its rules.
"We don’t want the Arabs to swim with us,” Kochav Yair, town resident and member of the Lev Hamakom club, told Haaretz. “When they were here, it wasn’t pleasant.”
The new rule actually keeps out anyone living outside Kochav Yair-Tzur Yigal from joining the club, Arab or Jewish, but its purpose is colored by bigotry. When Dr. Ahmed Mansour, who lives in the nearby Arab village Tira, filed a petition to de-segregate the club three years ago with the help of the Association for Civil Rights, local council members attempted to circumvent the claims of racism by making La Hamakom exclusive only to residents of immediate area. Kochav Yair-Tzur Yigal is entirely Jewish.
The country club has been denying Arabs for years, but Mansour took personal issue with the exclusion after his family's membership application was denied. Tira's swimming pool did not open until late summer and the next closest towns had no facilities to offer; La Hamakom would be ideal if it wasn't so racist.
"There appear to be good neighborly relations with Kochav Yair,” Mansour explained. “My clinic is full of people from there. Many of them shop in our town too. It becomes a problem only when we also want to be in the country club. Suddenly, segregation is required. It’s offensive. I could buy membership to a pool in Kfar Sava despite the distance. But this racism annoyed me. I only want justice.”
According to the petition, prior to the decision to close the club to anyone outside of Kochav Yair-Tzur Yigal, local council held a meeting that made their intentions on the subject of La Hamakom very clear.
“Would it be possible to market to Tzur Yitzhak the sports center, and then we’ll have fewer minority members?” a council member asked.
“What drives people from the club isn’t the price, but the Arabs. We came to live in a community. Whether we’re racist or not, it doesn’t matter," another replied. "The fact is that residents are leaving the community center because of the Arab children. It’s not clear why we can’t express our opinion.”
After the initial meeting, council decided to at least leave membership open to citizens of the nearby, predominately Jewish towns of Tzofim and Tzur Yitzhak, but when they were told by a legal adviser that this would simply not hold up in court, they decided to narrow the membership to locals only.
"Our first concern is for our children,” one resident of Kochav Yair-Tzur Yigal told Haraatz. “I know discrimination is wrong. But we have the right to decide who uses the facilities and who doesn’t, because it’s our tax money. We should close our community completely.”
“We’re a very tolerant community, but there’s something very aggressive about the Arabs entering the pool with their clothes on," added another. "It doesn’t look good. Since we can’t deny only Arabs from being members, the residents of Tzur Yitzhak and Tzofim are harmed. It’s regrettable, but there’s no other way.”
In March 2017, the Knesset, Israeli national legislature, passed an amendment to a law banning discrimination in most cases. The amendment makes it so that local councils are able distinguish between residents and non-residents as long as it is in the best interests of their citizenry, making Kochav Yair-Tzur Yigal actions, though racially motivated, potentially legal.
In response to the court decision, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel stated that “legitimizing closure of public facilities and restricting them to residents only is a social disaster. In Israeli reality, where wealthy communities sometimes border poor ones, such segregation leads to inequality in the access to public resources.”
The court is still debating Masoud's petition, but if judges side with the country club the Association for Civil Rights in Israel is worried that the doors would open for communities across Israel to exclude others based on race or class. In an already divided nation, the ramifications could set the stage for progress to falter for generations. There was some hope in all this though, and it came in the voice of a little girl who spoke to Haraatz by the La Hamakom pool.
"They don’t get in anyone’s way," she said of her Arab neighbors. "Anyone who wants to should be allowed into the club."
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