Joshua Mitnick
The Christian Science Monitor
December 10, 2010 - 1:00am

Hundreds of prominent Israeli rabbis have signed a religious opinion calling on Jews not to rent or sell real estate to Arabs, sparking public uproar and debate over the essence of Judaism and its place in Israel's democracy.

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The statement, supported by many state-employed municipal chief rabbis, insists there is a Torah ban on land transactions with "foreigners'' in the Land of Israel. Peppered with biblical citations, it includes a passage warning of a negative impact on property values from selling to non-Jews. "Their way of life is different from ours, and our oppressors are among them," the statement says.

The religious opinion reflects a confluence of several related trends: growing alienation between Jews and the country's one-fifth Arab minority, a shift of public sentiment toward ultra-nationalist political parties, and growing radicalization among the leaders of Israel's nationalist religious movement who challenge the secular foundations of the government.

"These things in the past wouldn't be acceptable in Israeli society,'' says Yair Ettinger, a reporter for the liberal Haaretz newspaper who covers the Orthodox religious community. "But now even though it's not politically correct, people allow themselves to say things in public that you wouldn't even dare to say in a private synagogue. It's a big change."

Holocaust memorial denounces the letter

Publication of the opinion sparked denunciations from leading Jewish institutions such as the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial authority and top functionaries, while philosophers and jurists have taken to the airwaves to argue that the rabbis were perpetuating discrimination while ignoring many of more universal concepts in Jewish tradition.

"Their statement shames the Jewish people,” said parliament speaker Reuven Rivlin. “A person cannot say that, in the name of the Jewish state, he is permitted to discriminate or set up a dividing line between one citizen and another, or between a citizen and a resident, or even between a citizen and a guest.”

Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein on Thursday launched a legal assessment to determine whether the letter is criminal, while Yad Vashem criticized it as a "severe blow" to Jewish values.

"We know that the Jewish people, that knew suffering and persecution and experienced ostracism and the revocation of basic rights, has expressed its stance on matters such as these with voices different than those we have heard today with this [ruling]," said Yad Vashem, also on Thursday.

How the letter began

The move to discourage transactions with Arabs began in October in the northern Israel city of Tzfat, where the chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliyahu, called on residents not to rent apartments to Arab students enrolled at a college in the city. That call was formalized into a religious ruling distributed among clerics in public positions.

Rabbinic signatories to the letter insisted that the legal opinion does not promote discrimination, but rather aims to protect Jews' hold on cities and the country from non-Jewish encroachment. They argued that in a case of a clash between the religious law and secular laws of the state, the former should prevail.

"I have a vision that there will be a Jewish state. There can be non-Jews and we need to treat them nicely, but we need to maintain a big Jewish majority,'' says Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a signatory who rejects allegations of racism. "We don't need to strengthen their hold on the land. It's not a secret that they want to annex our state. Just like America is for the Americans, England is for the English, I want the Jewish state to be for the Jews.''

Rabbi Yuval Sherlow, the head of a religious seminary, criticizes the letter, saying it reflects a drive to challenge Israel's secular democratic principles while emphasizing the religious character of the state. "One of the ways to do that is to isolate non-Jews.''

Only a limited number of prominent rabbis have come out against the letter.

Mining Jewish tradition

The theological debate is rooted in the vast canon of texts and rabbinic commentary that can be employed in support of both universalist and chauvinistic values, says Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, which promotes pluralistic Jewish thought in Israel.

"The job for Jewish spiritual leaders in Israel," he says, "is to mine Jewish tradition and find a stream of thought that will substantiate a modern Israeli Judaism that is worthy of a people with sovereignty and power rather than a helpless ghettoized people sustaining itself on fantasies of revenge against the Gentiles.''


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