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ISRAEL: Rabbinical ruling sparks controversy, racism charges

December 9, 2010 | 10:01 pm

When the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, with a large ultra-Orthodox population, banned renting apartments to migrant workers and moved to evict those already living there, it met with mild public objection. When the municipal rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, warned against renting apartments to Arab students in town, again, the response was limited.

But a religious ruling signed by dozens of rabbis banning renting or selling apartments to non-Jews has met with dismay and anger, prompting reaction across the board.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the ruling, saying people would be outraged if the shoe was on the other foot and Jews were barred from renting property anywhere in the world. Moderate rabbis condemn the assault on Judaism and democracy. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum and education center in Jerusalem, condemned the ruling as a blow to Jewish values, while Arab lawmakers likened the rabbis to skinheads. Even Amnesty International joined the fray.

The rabbis defend their ruling. It's not racism, it's halacha -- Jewish law -- that prohibits allowing Gentiles a foothold, Rabbi Eliyahu told Israel Radio: "We've seen what happens in mixed towns, our girls are tempted and this leads to assimilation." "We don't want this happening in Safed or anywhere else," he said. Rabbi Dov Volpe was blunter. "State laws contravening halacha count as dust," he said, making clear that the Torah trumps democracy.

Israel has laws against incitement to racism. The fine line between freedom of expression and violation of such laws makes officials wary of enforcing them; additional sensitivities make investigation of rabbis relatively rare. It's not so much the legal aspect as it is the public aspect, says Justice Dalia Dorner, president of Israel's press council, who called the religious decree an "abomination."

As the storm brewed in recent days, many felt one voice was missing from the fiery debate: the legal system. Why isn't the attorney general investigating, people demanded. The answer came Thursday evening, when the legal system responded to a petition by left-leaning lawmaker Ilan Gilon. The statement from the attorney general's office acknowledged the rabbis' statements were "problematic in several aspects" and "inappropriate for public officials" and that possible criminal aspects would be examined.

Racism is a lethal disease, writes Arab Israeli lawmaker Ahmed Tibi. A month ago, he sent the attorney general a letter of complaint about the Safed rabbi's ban. He's still waiting for an answer.

Israel's long years of conflict have bred intolerance, even hatred. Somewhere down the slippery slope, many have expanded their definition of "the enemy" to include anyone different who threatens their way of life, whether political, national or religious. Diversity is less easy to apply where the narratives of different groups are perceived to be mutually exclusive.

The 2010 Israeli Democracy Index finds that nearly half of all Jewish Israelis do not want Arabs as neighbors. A significant number do not want to live next door to "others" either, including gay people, migrant workers, the mentally ill or the ultra-Orthodox. To this, some commented that if one counts all the right-wingers who don't want to live next door to leftists and vice versa, Israelis just don't want to live next to any other Israeli, period.

A number of rabbis have begun withdrawing their signatures from the ruling, taking their cue from  Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, who pointed out that the same rabbis have no problem selling land to Arabs during shmita, the Bible's command that the land lie fallow every seventh year. (The state of Israel sells its leavening to Arabs during Passover too.) "I've said for some time that there are rabbis who must have their pens taken from them," Elyashiv was quoted as saying.

But others want more than just pens taken from the rabbis -- they want their jobs. Many of those who signed the decree serve as municipal rabbis, their salaries funded by taxpayers. The Haaretz editorial calling for their dismissal was only one of many. "Racism at the expense of Israeli citizens," its headline  said. 

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

 

 

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