Racism and the Israeli housing crisis

I tuned in to the end of this segment on the Kojo Namdi show, on WAMU’s 88.5 station (NPR), which featured as its guest Bernard Avishai, author of “The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace at Last” and former editor of the Harvard Business Review.

Nnamdi introduced the segment by suggesting that “Israel seems like a strange place to have an economic protest”, what with growth around 4% and its economy booming “making it unique in the region and, really, unique in the entire global economy” (later, a caller named Anne reminded listeners that U.S. tax dollars are actually subsidizing Israel to the tune of about $5,000 per Israeli citizen).

This same caller later brought up another paradox: that of the ever-expanding settlements.

Avishai’s response was telling and brought up a point that I had yet to hear discussed in connection with these protests (possibly because for many of us, it is so obvious): the racism of Israel’s housing crisis. Over 90% of Israeli land is government owned, much of that property stolen from Palestinians following 1948 and 1967 under its “absentee property” law. To privatize this land is to open it up to Palestinian ownership (though here, Avishai continually refers to the Palestinians as the Arabs).

“Housing, of course, is a big deal, but it also is telltale. “Housing is driven by the cost of land. Land is 90 percent controlled or owned by the government. For the Israeli government to privatize and auction off a good deal more land, that would drop housing costs substantially, they would be, in effect, giving up control over what Israeli governments have always been very careful about, namely, creating a sector in housing which was exclusive to Jews.

The danger for the Israeli right — people like Netanyahu — in privatizing land is that Arabs can gain a great deal more land for the expansion of Arab cities and Arab towns. So here is a perfect example of, you know, how far can the government go in creating a bettering of — in bettering the cost of living without providing a kind of lever for Israeli Arabs to expand their own towns and cities?

As far as the settlements are concerned, it is true that the Israeli right, right wing government, have kept the cost of housing low, or at least kept the boiling point around the lack of housing at a lower temperature, by sending lots of people off into the West Bank and into the occupied territories. This is one of the reasons why some settlers and some people in the settlement movement have joined these housing protests because they want to see the government spending a lot more on putting housing in occupied territory.

And this is the kind of thing that this young coalition, this young leadership of the coalition, has to decide. Are they going to say things that, in effect, put a red flag in front of the settlers and the Israeli right? Or are they going to say, hey, we’ve got to do this without expanding into the West Bank?”