For the past seven years the country club in the local council Kochav Yair-Tzur Yigal in central Israel has refused to accept Arab members. Yet the community’s Jewish neighbors were welcome to enjoy the club’s three swimming pools, fitness room, lawns and other facilities. Some 20 percent of the Lev Hamakom country club’s members are from the Tzur Yitzhak community and the West Bank settlement Tzofim, to the east of it. Following a petition filed by a resident of the nearby Arab village Tira against the club’s policy three years ago, the club recently decided to sanitize the ban: From now on, membership will be restricted to Kochav Yair-Tzur Yigal’s residents, who of course are all Jewish, while no outsiders, Jewish or Arab, will be allowed in, the local council decided.
“We don’t want the Arabs to swim with us,” says a Kochav Yair resident. “When they were here, it wasn’t pleasant.” She finds nothing wrong with banning from the club anyone who doesn’t live in the local council. “It’s no big deal if that’s the price our Jewish brothers [outside the local council] have to pay.” The residents of Tzur Yitzhak and Tzofim agree with her, perhaps because they have other ways of enjoying themselves in the summer. The idea that Jews and Arabs can share the same pool appears to many of them unacceptable.
Dr. Ahmed Mansour, an ophthalmologist from Tira, petitioned the Lod District Court three years ago against Kochav Yair-Tzur Yigal and the organization operating the country club after his request to buy a club membership for himself, his wife – a physiotherapist in Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital – and their small son was denied. The petition was submitted by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. Mansour said in the petition that there was no swimming pool in Taibeh and Kalansua, the neighboring towns, while the pool in Tira only opens late in the summer. The court has debated the petition several times but hasn’t reached a decision. “There appear to be good neighborly relations with Kochav Yair,” Mansour said this week. “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.”
The petition cites a protocol of a council meeting in Kochav Yair-Tzur Yigal in 2010, before the decision was made to close the country club to outside residents. “Would it be possible to market to Tzur Yitzhak the sports center, and then we’ll have fewer minority members?” asked one council member. Another said: “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. 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.” However, according to the document, Arabs comprised only 3 percent of the club’s members. After that meeting the council decided to close the club to anyone who wasn’t a resident of the community. But later, probably due to the few members who joined, it was reopened to the residents of Tzur Yitzhak and Tzofim, whose children go to school in the local council.
“The admission policy to the club constitutes discrimination based on nationality,” the petition says, “motivated by public pressure to prevent Arabs from the region from becoming members.” The council’s decision is based on “familiar patterns of segregation in residence and schools, and creates clear discrimination on the basis of nationality,” the petition says. The local council said in response that the ban wasn’t nationality-based discrimination but “a social-communal consideration based on granting priority to residents, a consideration that is not prohibited by law.”
However, this may not be merely a local issue. Over the years the state has participated in financing the country club, also through the Association of Community Centers. In March, while the petition was discussed in court, the Knesset passed an amendment to the law banning discrimination in products, services and admission to public places. Under the amendment, the law will not apply to “distinction made by a local council between its residents and those who aren’t, to the extent required to carry out its duties or to operate its powers for its residents’ benefit.” Following the amendment, the court instructed the parties to update their positions.
At the beginning of June the Kochav Yair-Tzur Yigal council discussed the issue. “At the bottom line there are two possibilities,” the council’s legal advisers said. “You can either enable anyone to buy a membership, or restrict it to residents only.” If membership is available to anyone who is interested, it could cause an “overload.” In this case, limiting membership to residents only falls under the clause of “operating powers for the residents’ benefit,” they said. One of the council members asked about the current situation, which enables Jews who are not residents of the local council, but whose children study in it, to be members. The legal advisers said “there’s no way to defend such a decision, as it doesn’t comply with the law.” A non-resident may only enter the country club as a guest of a member who lives in the local council, they said.
Residents of Kochav Yair-Tzur Yigal appear to agree with this. “Our first concern is for our children,” a resident said. “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.” Another said, “We’re a very tolerant community, but there’s something very aggressive about the Arabs entering the pool with their clothes on. 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.”
A third resident says, “If anyone wants to swim with Arabs, let him take them home. Here there’s no place for it.” Only a little girl, still in her bathing suit, disagreed. “They don’t get in anyone’s way. Anyone who wants to should be allowed into the club,” she said.
Some 200 families from Tzur Yigal and Tzofim are club members. “I totally understand Kochav Yair’s decision,” a Tzur Yitzhak resident said. “Nobody wants Arabs from the whole region to come to his country club. We should focus on building our own pool instead of going to other places.” “Jews and Arabs aren’t the same thing,” another resident says. “They don’t deserve to swim with us. I’d rather they don’t go in the pool, even if it means I can’t use it.” Similar sentiments were voiced in Tzofim. “It’s a totally sensible decision,” one settlement resident said. “We’ll manage. At the most we’ll travel a little farther.”
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel wrote in the response to the court 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 association said the Kochav Yair-Tzur Yigal local council is interpreting the law in a way that’s opposite to the Knesset’s intent. “Instead of reducing discrimination, it claims the law allows it to exclude anyone who isn’t a resident of the community. If this interpretation is accepted, wealthy communities will be able to close their gates to their less wealthy neighbors who cannot afford parks, sports, culture or entertainment facilities.” The Kochav Yair-Tzur Yigal local council said it “firmly dismisses any attempt to allude to discrimination. The council’s stance is that all the decisions on the issue were made in keeping with the law.”