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Why can't an Arab Israeli couple find a home in Jerusalem?

Jewish landlords are refusing to rent an apartment to a couple after determining that they are Arabs.

Luna Khalil Saliba debated at great length whether to share on Facebook what she and her fiancé, Raid Ashkar, have been going through in their attempt to rent an apartment in Jerusalem. For months, they had been unable to find a place simply because they were Arabs. The final straw that led Saliba to tell all was a text message from a Jerusalem landlord that made her realize that even if they somehow managed to find a non-racist property owner, the neighbors might make their lives miserable.

“Hi. Your name tells me you are an Arab,” the woman wrote. “I have no problem with it. On the contrary. I am in favor of encouraging ties between Jews and Arabs. However, I once had two Arab tenants and the neighbors really abused them.”

Friends of Saliba from Israel Army Radio, where she served military duty as a producer, urged her to expose the attitude of Israelis toward two Arab citizens who have swam courageously against the tide only to realize that even an army uniform does not grant Arabs entry into Israel’s increasingly radicalized society.

Members of Israel’s Arab minority are not required to serve in the military, unlike their Jewish peers, but a few volunteer for duty. The landlord above possibly had no idea that Saliba had just completed a full two years of military service and that her husband-to-be continues to serve in the Border Police. She may have even watched Ashkar’s proposal to Saliba, which generated nationwide coverage on social media. 

On the day Ashkar proposed in March 2018, Saliba had gone to Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl in uniform to interview the commander in charge of the annual Independence Day ceremony, which honors distinguished Israelis in a torch lighting event.

“Raid was one of 70 flag bearers chosen to march in this important ceremony,” Saliba told Al-Monitor, describing the rehearsal she attended prior to the event. “They marched in all sorts of formations that suddenly spelled out the words, ‘Luna, will you marry me?’ It took me a few minutes to realize this was a proposal. Raid explained that he felt he was part of a very special occasion, 70 years of our state’s independence, and he decided this was the right moment to ask for my hand after eight years of [dating].”

An entire country was swept up in the proposal and the love story of two soldiers who chose to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), becoming part of the people’s army. These days, Saliba describes the anguish she has since experienced.

“A year after ending my service in 2018, we are looking for an apartment in ‘our state,’ but this time we are not in uniform,” she wrote on Facebook. “Like every young couple, we want to set up a home in Israel, to live together, to study and live in the capital, Jerusalem — the place where my fiancé has been working for three years as a Border Police officer. However, this time, when people hear him talk, they don’t shed a tear of excitement and don’t clap with joy. This time, they stutter and try to avoid answering a simple question: ‘Is the flat still available?’ Let me cut to the chase. It is not. Not if the caller has an Arab accent when speaking Hebrew. With an Arab accent, almost every apartment is miraculously unavailable.”

Saliba’s post went viral and generated reactions of every kind. Some expressed shame at the racism Saliba and Ashkar have experienced and offered to help. “People opened their private homes to us and offered to help us find a place,” she told Al-Monitor. “Most of the suggestions were not useful because we need an apartment in Jerusalem, where Raid works.”

The reactions of another kind included, “They [Israelis] said we were moaners, that Arabs will always be Arabs, that Arab workers often kill their [Jewish] employers, so we have to stop complaining [about discrimination].” There were also those in the Arab community who expressed glee at the couple's difficulties and criticized them for having chosen “the wrong side,” opting to enlist in the IDF to acquire full civil rights, and then being slapped in the face.

“I am from Shfar’am. Everyone thinks it’s a village, but no, it’s a town like all Israeli towns,” Saliba explained, revealing the ignorance of Jewish Israelis. “We are both Catholic Christians. We have loved each other since childhood. We both did the most patriotic thing possible by volunteering to serve in the IDF. We decided to move out of our bubble and become part of the state. We did so with all our heart, as a matter of principle and out of a real desire to affect change, a change starting with us. We experienced all the difficulties, the mean reactions and the eye rolling in the Arab sector. Then I had to tell everyone that we cannot even rent an apartment. I feel a sense of defeat. After all, I kept encouraging people to take a step into Israeli society and become a part of it in many respects, not only in the army but in everything else, and suddenly I come and complain that we have been given the cold shoulder.”

Saliba and Ashkar’s experience is not unusual. In 2010, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas, said preference should be given to Jews seeking to buy land or rent an apartment. That same year, some 50 municipal rabbis, citing Jewish law, issued a strict ban on the sale or rental of apartments and land in Israel to non-Jews.

Incitement against Israeli Arabs has since grown, and fear-mongering campaigns by politicians on the right, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have become routine. In addition, the Nationality Law (2018) enshrined the establishment of Jewish communities as a “national value,” so who can blame Jewish Israeli property owners for discriminating against Arabs when they constantly hear warnings about Arabs? In August 2017, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel demanded that the Justice Ministry, headed by the right-wing Ayelet Shaked, issue guidelines for realtors to avoid discriminating against clients on the basis of their origins.

On May 25, while Saliba was being interview by Al-Monitor, the Likud condemned organizers of an opposition-led protest in Tel Aviv for allowing Knesset member Ayman Odeh, chair of the Israeli Arab Ra’am-Ta’al faction, to address the crowd. “The terror supporter Ayman Odeh delivers a speech with the blessing of [Yair] Lapid and [Benny] Gantz,” Israel's ruling party stated, referring to the heads of the Blue and White in yet another racist message aimed at Jewish public opinion. In other words, as far as the Likud is concerned, Arabs — if not all then at least most of them — support terrorism as do their elected officials in the Knesset.

Saliba and Ashkar will probably find an apartment soon. They are getting married this summer. This fall, she will start undergraduate studies in international relations and environmental sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Ashkar will continue his defense-related work in the volatile capital. Going forward, it will be interesting to see what affects their integration into Israeli society more — the uniform that Ashkar puts on when he goes to work or the couple's names and the accent that exposes their origins.

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