ISRAEL'S IMAGE got a black eye last week when its cabinet voted to advance a bill that would have barred Arab citizens from buying homes in some Galilee towns.
The proposed law was denounced everywhere, above all in Israel, where it set off a wave of outrage. Voices across the political spectrum denounced it -- from right-wingers like former Cabinet minister Benny Begin, who condemned it as "undemocratic" and "unworthy," to Yossi Sarid of the hard-left Meretz party, who said that adopting it would be tantamount to "turning Israel into a racist state."
Countless Israelis observed that such a law could only promote the antisemitic slander that Zionism -- the national independence movement of the Jewish people -- is racist. Many agreed with Dan Meridor, a minister from the Center Party, who said it is precisely because Israel is a Jewish state that it must never commit the kind of discrimination against minorities to which Jews have so often been subjected themselves.
Shamed by the public's reaction, the Cabinet reversed itself. On Sunday it buried the bill by a vote of 22-2. And in truth, it would have been surprising if the bill had met any other fate.
Bigoted schemes and intolerant proposals are not unheard of in even the most decent democracies; the mark of their decency is not that such schemes and proposals are never floated, but that they are usually shot down. What made the anti-Arab bill so newsworthy was how out of character it was. One of Israel's greatest distinctions, after all, is that despite the Arab world's long history of anti-Israel enmity and violence, the Jewish state has always guaranteed the equality and freedom of its Arab minority.
Israeli Arabs have the right to vote and to hold public office. Nearly one-10th of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, is Arab; there is even a mosque in the Knesset building for those who are Muslim. One of the justices of Israel's supreme court is an Arab; so is a minister in Ariel Sharon's cabinet. Arabs are active in Israeli commerce, media, education, and law. A few years ago, a young Arab woman was even named Miss Israel.
The vast majority of Israelis regard all this as normal and desirable. It is true -- and most Israelis would acknowledge -- that Arabs do not enjoy full social or economic equality and are at times discriminated against in ways that Jews are not. Often there are tensions and flare-ups; how could there not be, given the thousands of Jews who have been killed or crippled by Arab terrorists?
And yet for all that, few Israelis dispute the right of their Arab countrymen to justice, dignity, and equity. The spirit of Israel's Declaration of Independence, which appealed "to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the state on the basis of full and equal citizenship," is still a core ideal of mainstream Israeli society. Nearly one Israeli in five is an Arab, and the consensus across Israeli society is clear: Arabs have every right to live among Jews.
If only there were an equally clear consensus that Jews have every right to live among Arabs.
Sadly, there is anything but.
Is there any group of people in this world more roundly despised than the 225,000 Jews who have settled in Judea and Samaria over the past 25 years? (Judea and Samaria are the age-old names for the territory Jordan renamed "the West Bank" after invading it in 1948.) If there is one thing that Europe, the State Department, the United Nations, and most of America's media Bigfeet agree on, it is that the settlers are an intolerable affront who must be uprooted and removed if there is ever to be peace in the Middle East.
Yet why should that be? If it was repugnant to propose that Arabs be kept from moving into certain Jewish towns, it is even more repugnant to demand that hundreds of thousands of Jews be ethnically "cleansed" from their homes and communities. The Nazis had a word for this: judenrein. And as Palestinian terrorists make clear every time they commit an atrocity like Tuesday's slaughter of passengers on the Tel Aviv-Emmanuel bus, the Nazi comparison is entirely apt. Anyone who called for expelling every Arab from Israel would be seen as a bigoted extremist. Those who call for kicking the Jews out of Judea invite the same description.
The claim that the settlements are illegal is bogus. Israel took the West Bank in self defense in 1967, and nothing in international law prohibits Jews from moving there. Or rather, moving *back* there: Jews have lived in Judea and Samaria since antiquity. The only time they didn't was during the Jordanian occupation of 1948-67, when the occupiers insisted that the territory be *judenrein.* Far from condemning the settlements, the world should applaud the return of the Jews to their ancient lands -- especially since their goal is not to displace the Arabs living there but to dwell among them.
If there is room in Israel for a million Arab citizens, there is surely room in Palestine for a few hundred thousand Jews. It is time we began to say so.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)