U.S. Rabbis Offer Rare Rebuke of Israeli Edict

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published December 15, 2010, issue of December 24, 2010.
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An edict signed by dozens of Israeli rabbis barring the sale or rental of homes to non-Jews in Israel has led to a rare consensus among American rabbis, who have issued a nearly unanimous condemnation of the ban.

Statements by the American Modern Orthodox and Conservative rabbinic associations, and by the spokesman for an American ultra-Orthodox umbrella group, all denounce the Israeli rabbis’ directive. So, too, does an online petition signed by more than 900 rabbis, most of them affiliated with non-Orthodox denominations.

Controversial proclamations by Israeli rabbis are not unheard of, but this sort of broad American rabbinic response is rare. Now, it appears that the collective response has reached a tipping point, at which so many American rabbis have spoken against the edict that others may feel compelled to concur.

“The halachic issues here are complex,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, first vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largely Modern Orthodox rabbinic group. “But a blanket statement that singles out a certain population and says ‘Don’t rent to them; don’t sell to them’ in such a blanket fashion is something that struck a very raw nerve.”

The Israeli letter was drafted in support of an effort by the chief rabbi of Safed to bar home rentals to Arabs. Tensions have run high in recent months between ultra-Orthodox and Arab students in that northern Israeli city. Exactly how many rabbis signed the edict is unclear. Although some right-wing Israeli news outlets reported that the letter had 300 signatories, other news organizations pegged the number at fewer than 100. Regardless, the edict drew attention in the Israeli and international press because dozens of those who signed were municipal rabbis employed by the government.

Israel’s leading Lithuanian Haredi leader, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, refused to sign the letter, as did, according to one report, Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Israel’s Shas party. The letter was condemned by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In America, rabbinic opposition to the letter came quickly. An online petition for rabbis, posted by the New Israel Fund on December 10, had received 914 signatures by December 15.

“Statements like these do great damage to our efforts to encourage people to love and support Israel,” the NIF statement read. “They communicate to our congregants that Israel does not share their values, and they promote feelings of alienation and distancing.”

Signatories of the NIF petition included Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Most signatories appeared to be members of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, with a few notable exceptions — including prominent New York, left-wing Orthodox rabbis Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school, and Marc Angel of Congregation Shearith Israel.

Some Orthodox rabbis said that the sponsorship of the petition by the NIF, which is identified with left-wing causes, may have discouraged the participation of rabbis who otherwise might have agreed with the petition’s sentiment.

The RCA’s statement, released December 14, criticized the Israeli rabbis’ letter in somewhat gentler terms. “We are surely sympathetic to the impulse to protect a Jewish community in the face of intermarriage, communal conflict, or unsafe neighborhoods,” the statement read. “It is our view that in spite of the concerns of the authors of the statement, it is wrong and unacceptable to advocate blanket exclusionary policies directed against minorities of other faiths or ethnic groups.”

Goldin said that the RCA felt compelled to speak because, unlike an off-the-cuff comment by Yosef — famous for making provocative remarks — the Israeli rabbis’ edict was a formal statement of Jewish law. “That is what drew our attention — that once such a formal statement is issued, we felt that it couldn’t be left on the record without a response,” he said.

The RCA’s statement came hours after the posting of a translated version of a letter opposing the edict, written by prominent centrist Orthodox rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who is American but lives in Israel, to a widely read Orthodox blog. Some observers saw the RCA’s response as a gambit to protect the group from recriminations for not speaking out on the issue.

“They came up with it because they had no choice, because everyone else was already speaking out, and they felt, ‘We better say something so people don’t think we’re in favor of this,’” said Angel, a former president of the RCA and a frequent critic of the group.

“They’re facing the reality, political realities, that this is not an issue that you want to have your name stamped on,” Mendy Ganchrow, former president of the Orthodox Union and a retired executive vice president of the Religious Zionists of America, said of the RCA.

In an e-mail, Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the American ultra-Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America, said that his organization concurred with rabbis Elyashiv and Yosef. “The rabbis who signed the letter [banning the rentals] were simply misguided,” Shafran wrote.

Though the mainstream American rabbinical associations appear to oppose the Israeli rabbis’ letter, at least one prominent Orthodox rabbi was sympathetic. “I think it’s part of a concern — and I believe a rightful one — that there’s a war going on, and we’re trying our best to maintain normalcy,” said Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a rosh yeshiva, or dean, of the rabbinical school at Yeshiva University and a major rabbinic arbiter.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter @joshnathankazis


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