American Restrictive Covenants and Israeli Community Exclusions

Posted on Categories Legal History, Public, Race & Law, Religion & Law

Controversies in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s regarding restrictive covenants related to race foreshadow current controversies in Israel regarding community exclusions of Arab citizens. Both controversies illustrate how difficult it is to maintain equality in a pluralistic society and underscore the importance of freedom to choose one’s housing in that effort.

In the United States, zoning according to race had been found unconstitutional in the early twentieth century, but segregationists turned instead to private restrictive covenants to keep African Americans and members of other minority groups out of white towns and neighborhoods. Fortunately, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) that a court enforcing such a restrictive covenant was denying equal protection of the laws and therefore acting unconstitutionally. Would-be segregationists then attempted to sue private parties for breaching the covenants when they sold or rented properties to African Americans, but the United States Supreme Court said that any court entertaining these suits was also acting unconstitutionally.

In Israel, starting in the 1970s, Jewish nationalists began settling in the sprawling exurbs of northern Israel, where membership committees often decide who can buy local homes. When Jewish-only communities emerged in the Negev and in Gallilee, Arab citizens sued, arguing they were being excluded. The Israeli Supreme Court barred the exclusion, asserting that “equality is one of the foundational principles of the State of Israel.” However, just this year the Knesset in effect overruled the judiciary by enacting a law that allows local membership communities to reject potential residents who did not fit the “social-cultural fabric.”

Both extended controversies suggest that equality is impossible if citizens of different races and religions are not free to live where they want. One’s home and one’s ability to choose it are a base for one’s sense of equality, not in the Blackstonian sense of each man’s home is his castle but rather as a starting point for civic self-actualization. How can one understand oneself as equal without the same freedom as others to decide where to live?

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