An Israeli taxi-hailing app, offering its Jewish customers the option which guarantees that they will not be picked up by an Arab cab driver, is being sued by human rights lawyers. Gett, a global firm with users in most major cities, is facing a pay-out of $47 million in damages for providing a function that discriminates against non-Jews.
In the class-action lawsuit filed this week, Gett's additional function-which is a unique service known as "Mehadrin" offered to religiously observant Jews-was described by the lawyer working on the case, Asaf Pink, as "a racist service that provides taxis with Jewish drivers." Pink and local rights group, the Israel Religious Action Centre, submitted the case following a private investigation that proved the service was tailored to meet the specific needs of Jewish passengers despite it being discriminatory.
In the 2018 investigation, Gett's Jerusalem representative, Herzl Moshe, allegedly said he would never sign an Arab driver to the special service offered to Jews, even if they agreed to Gett's terms. "Let me tell you a secret," he said in recorded comments. "Gett Mehadrin is not for religious [Jews]. It is for people who don't want an Arab driver. When my daughter wants to travel, I order her a Gett Mehadrin. She doesn't care if the driver is religious or not because what she wants is a Jewish driver."
The firm commissioned to carry out the private investigation also sent an Arab man to ask if he could join the service, but he was refused. Moshe is reporting saying: "I have 1,500 Arab drivers, and not even one of them works for Mehadrin; nor will they."
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The case has triggered a debate over the nature of racism in Israel. Despite its many similarities with South Africa during the apartheid era, the Zionist state has been relatively successful in shielding itself from the kind of stigma that brought down the racist regime in 1991.
Part of that success has been down to the fact that Israeli lawmakers have avoided the imposition of what is often referred to "petty apartheid". This practice is the most visible side of apartheid and includes the segregation of facilities based on race such as public amenities like parks, bathrooms and public transportation. The Gett app would certainly have fallen into this category.
The second "grand apartheid" refers to the underlying limitations placed on black South Africans' access to land and political rights. These include laws that prevented black South Africans from even living in the same areas as white people. They also denied black Africans political representation, and, at its most extreme, citizenship in South Africa.
While both forms of apartheid can be found in Israel, signs like "For Whites Only" – or in Israel's case "For Jews Only" – do not exist. To find examples of both requires expending more of one's effort than simply reading a sign on the bus.
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Components of grand apartheid in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip is seen on a daily basis. Over five million Palestinians have been kept under a state of occupation for nearly seven decades without their right to vote. Israel oversees a territory where law is not enforced equitably. There exist separate legal and judicial systems for Jews and non-Jews. Israelis and Palestinians are also segregated in areas of housing, education, health care, transportation and welfare. Jews living in the occupied territories are considered state residents eligible for all rights conferred by the state, however the same law does not apply to their Palestinian neighbours.
Any country presiding over such a situation would rightly be considered an apartheid state, but somehow this is tolerated, presumably because the occupation is seen to be a temporary character of Israel. It ought to be pointed out, though, that the period of apartheid in South African history lasted less than Israel's so-called "temporary occupation" of Palestine.
Discrimination runs much deeper than racist policies in the occupied territory. Israel is unique in the way that it has created a multi-tier citizenship model within the state for the purpose of maintaining its Jewish character. A number of laws have been enacted to build the state around institutionalised discrimination. The 1950 Law of Return, for example, incorporates the fundamental ideology of Zionism: all Jews, no matter where they were born, have the inalienable right to migrate to Israel.
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The 1952 Law of Citizenship (better known as the Nationality Law), meanwhile, gives all persons who are accorded Jewish nationality in the above Law of Return the right to claim Israeli citizenship automatically upon arriving at Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, without any formal procedures. The same law, however, stipulates specific protocols for non-Jews who wish to have citizenship.
Under Israel's extraterritorial notion of sovereignty, citizenship is granted to anyone sharing the same ethnicity or religion, regardless of where they live in the world. In Israel's case, only Jews are granted nationality rights, while non-Jews residing in the same territory are deprived of such rights. Israel is unique in this regard. No Muslim majority country for example grants automatic citizenship on the basis of religion or ones "Arabness" for that matter. Likewise, no western democracy grants automatic citizenship purely on the grounds of race and religion.
Unlike liberal democracies in the West, Israel upholds a constitutionally-imposed distinction between "citizenship" and "nationality". Only Jews are granted nationality and are able to enjoy the full spectrum of rights granted by the state. This has generated an odious system of delivering state benefits to foster the impression that Israel is not discriminating against non-Jews.
By separating services between "national" institutions and "government" institutions, Israel has been able to legally siphon resources to provide services for Jewish citizens only. For example, institutions financed by Zionist groups such as the Jewish National Fund can and do discriminate openly in favour of Jews without seeming to taint the apparently democratic government with the stench of racism.
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This kind of Jew/non-Jew bifurcation of public services denies non-Jewish citizens of the state from accessing funds and services open to Jews only. With 92 per cent of the land of Israel "owned" by the JNF, much of it expropriated from Palestinians, inaccessible to non-Jewish Israeli citizens; they are unable by law to own, lease, live or work on it.
Despite efforts to curtail displays of petty apartheid and hide discrimination under layers of obfuscations, racist practices such as segregation of public transport, which has a charged history and triggers spontaneous outrage, often breaks out.
In 2015 the Israeli government was forced into the embarrassing position of having to suspended new rules that would have separated Palestinian and Jewish passengers on buses. Last year, three Israeli hospitals admitted for the first time that they segregate Jewish and Arab women giving birth. In 2018, residents of northern Israeli town Afula demonstrated against the sale of a house to a family of Palestinian citizens. The same city imposed a ban on Palestinians from entering a park. Months earlier, a public swimming pool in southern Israel was exposed for separating Jews and Palestinians in a public swimming pool.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.