It's so simple to be wise.  Just think of something stupid to say, and then don't say it.     Sam Levenson (1911-1980)

Friday, August 1, 2008

Whose Village Is It?

Today I saw an ad for an exclusive property somewhere in California -- the kind with "architecturally masterful residences on spectacular view lots,"  and a private country club on the grounds.  The three photos in the ad show, respectively:  a stone mansion, a family standing around a poolside dinner table, and a man looking proudly at his son as the two of them meander across a golf course.  

The ad text contains all the code words for "exclusive community."  The small print at the bottom lists all the legal mumbo-jumbo, including the following (taken here from their website, which shall not be linked, to protect the innocent):  

And what skin color do all the models have?  I'll give you one guess.  

Now jump to an article in last Sunday's Los Angeles Times (worth reading, to gain an understanding of the context).
After he bought his first home, state Assemblyman Hector De La Torre uncovered a dark chapter in its history: A covenant attached to the original deed declared that the house, like all the others in his South Gate neighborhood, could be occupied by white people only. Minorities could stay there -- but only as servants.

It is a discovery that has startled any number of California homeowners. Many of the state's vast subdivisions, particularly in Los Angeles County, were once governed by restrictive racial covenants designed to enforce segregation. Those covenants have been illegal for more than half a century, but their offensive rules remain part of some deeds. Most home buyers encounter the issue when they are asked to sign a disclosure as part of the escrow process, pledging to ignore any racist language.
Turns out that a 1948 law declared these covenants legally unenforceable;  however, Mr. De La Torre wishes to improve on the situation:
This year, he proposed a law that would require racially restrictive covenants -- it is estimated that there are hundreds of thousands statewide -- to be stricken from the public record at the time of the next sale.
The covenants were created in the 1920's, 30's and 40's, primarily to keep Blacks (as well as "Jews, Italians, Russians, Muslims, Latinos and Asians") out of housing developments.  According to one L.A. city councilman, the unequal distribution of resources from back then, is still felt today.  (And yes, there are people protesting the law, on historical and bureaucratic grounds).

Dismaying, and yet I cannot take the moral high ground.  Why not?  Because for one, I live in a place that has a covenant of its own.  In order to purchase our house, we had to be approved by a committee of moshav members and residents. We had to show that we were Shomrei Shabbat, and that we were "stable" people (hmmm....).

Now, I'm all for stability, mental and otherwise, and after having had it each way, I would definitely choose to live in a community that observes Shabbat, since Shabbat really does require a minimum level of community observance and togetherness to be fully felt.

As for the ethnicity issue, that one's a doozy.  The founders of our moshav are of North African descent, and we in the neighborhood will forever be the "Ashkenazim," with all its colorful implications.  (Now there's multiculturalism). It's not at all clear how many people on our moshav, from either cultural background, would be willing to relinquish racially-based housing covenants, were we to have them. 

Israel is made up of many types of communities.  There are cities, such as Yaffo (Jaffa) and Haifa, as well as smaller communities in the Galil, where people different cultures live together with a certain level of ease not found in, say, Jerusalem and its surroundings.  There are stories of Muslim families who have fought legal battles to live in Jewish-owned neighborhoods and apartment buildings in Tel Aviv and its environs, and stories of Jewish families staking out claims in Muslim neighborhoods.

If these examples are too intense for you, let's get back to something most of us can agree on, like all the Ethiopians we air-lifted on rescue missions, only to confine them to dead-end "development" towns like Dimona and Ofakim.  And what about "guest" workers?  They're not even on the map.  We invite them in to do our dirty work, only to chase them down and throw them out.

Bottom line:  these covenants --  both written and unwritten -- certainly exist today, within Israel and without, at all levels of society.  I think all of us can do better.

Keep the balance,



Leora said...

Interesting post. Thanks for talking about social issues in Israel. When it's Jew vs. Arab, you can say it's for security. But these other differentiations...

A Living Nadneyda said...

"Security" is a topic all its own. I'm not sure that keeping an Muslim family from living in a Tel Aviv apartment building, for example, inherently enhances security in Israel. The issue is complicated, no question.


Rivster said...

Ay yi yi -- we are so complicated!!!

What is mind-boggling is that there are still plenty of country clubs and the like that remain "closed."

Even in this day and age...

mother in israel said...

The mindset is so completely different here.

A Living Nadneyda said...

rivster - That's true, but I'm talking about something much more basic than country clubs. I'm talking about day-to-day living, and all that's connected (availability of resources and decent education, to name only a couple).

mii - I agree, but what do you mean by that?


muse said...

After 27 years in Shiloh, a relatively small community, I see the importance of some control for the safety of the residents.

A Living Nadneyda said...

Shiloh is a different case than a large city, that's true.
What happens when we are talking about a larger city, where the population is already mixed, and a minority family wants to move into a specific apartment building, and is faced with negative sentiments of the other residents?

Anyone out there from Haifa or similar place and wants to get in on the discussion? You're most welcome...


Jameel @ The Muqata said...

One of the big issues of the yishuvim in Yehuda vShomron is that had they not been so exclusive in their admission standards from the mid 1970s through the mid-2000s -- then the Jewish population today could have been over a million Jewish Israelis in Yehuda vShomron.

That said, living in a mixed religious-secular yishuv, the challenges are often daunting.

A Living Nadneyda said...

Excellent point, Jameel. When we exclude, we gain something (staying within the comfort zone of familiarity) at the expense of something else (more diversity, and a larger community).

Putting it that way, I believe Israeli society would benefit from a broader approach toward shared residential living, and the "daunting challenges" of a greater diversity.

Our segregated education system is probably at the root of a preference for the homogeneous in Israeli society, and I have many questions regarding the detriments of such a system, but that's for a later post.