Amy Teibel
The Statesman
December 7, 2010 - 1:00am

Three dozen top Israeli rabbis threw their support Tuesday behind a religious ruling barring Jews from selling or renting homes to non-Jews — an indication of growing radicalism within the rabbinical community at a time of mounting friction between Israeli Arabs and Jews.

The action by the clerics — who are chief rabbis in some of Israel's largest cities and influential among the devout — quickly fueled charges of racism. It was also likely to deepen the feelings of alienation growing between Israel's majority Jews and minority Arabs, and widen the schism between secular and religious Jews.

The religious opinion first became a focus of controversy last year when the chief rabbi of Safed — a town in northern Israel that has a large concentration of devout Jews — urged that it be applied specifically to Arabs.

Nitai Morgenstern, an aide to Safed's chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliahu, said the town has "a problem of a lot of people renting and selling to Arabs, and that destroys the city's social fabric."

Recently, a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews asked other chief rabbis to express their support for the ruling to prove it has widespread backing, Morgenstern said Tuesday. Thirty-seven rabbis signed it and The Associated Press obtained a copy of the ruling with their signatures attached on Tuesday.

Morgenstern said he understood how this attitude could cause friction with the Arab minority, which accounts for one-fifth of Israel's population of 7.6 million.

"But people have to see the other side," he said.

Amit Cohen said he and other Safed residents led the campaign to win other rabbis' support because clerics are "simply fed up with the fact that rabbis have to fear issuing or discussing religious rulings."

"Rabbis rule on the basis of existing texts," Cohen said. "But lately, rabbis are afraid to rule on the basis of what is written because they are afraid of the reaction from the media and the government."

The director-general of Israel's chief rabbinate, Oded Weiner, said the rabbinate hadn't seen the rabbis' action and wouldn't comment on it.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to "condemn the incitement expressed by the rabbis and take disciplinary action against those who are employed by the state. "

"It is unthinkable that they would use their public status to promote racism and incitement," the group said in a statement. Taxpayers pay the salaries of Israel's 126 municipal chief rabbis.

A Netanyahu spokesman wasn't immediately available for comment.

Arab-Jewish relations took a major turn for the worse 10 years ago at the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising against Israel. Thousands of Israeli Arabs rioted for days in solidarity with the Palestinians, and Israeli police killed 13 Arab citizens while trying to quell the unrest.

Israel's ultranationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, led his Yisrael Beitenu party to large gains in last year's parliamentary elections by playing on the perceived disloyalty of Israel's Arabs. He and other lawmakers have proposed a series of bills seen as discriminating against Israeli Arabs, including one that would allow small communities to exclude them.

Israeli Jews have increasingly been questioning the loyalty of Arab citizens, who legally enjoy the same rights but tend to be poorer and discriminated against in state funding and job opportunities.

Meanwhile, some members of the Arab minority have become radicalized by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and are openly speaking about turning the Jewish state into part of a binational state that would be home to Israelis and Palestinians both.

Salah Mohsen, spokesman of Adalah, an advocacy group for Arabs in Israel, said the rabbis' action was "not surprising" and blamed Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu party, which wants to redraw Israel's borders to exclude large Arab communities.

Rabbi David Rosen, the interfaith adviser to Israel's chief rabbinate, described the rabbis' action as "disturbing" but said he did not think that the majority of the country's rabbis would agree and called it a product of the lingering conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

"The rabbinate as a whole isn't xenophobic or hostile to Arabs," Rosen said. "As long as the conflict goes on here, it's logical to assume that the attitudes of all sides will harden, which is deeply regrettable."


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