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Theater of the Absurd

Act I: In September, some dozens of prominent Israeli rabbis signed a religious opinion calling on Jews not to rent or sell real estate to Arabs. Among the signers, many were municipal chief rabbis, meaning they are state employees. Their stated rationale? According to Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, of the Beit El settlement, “We don’t need to help Arabs set down roots in Israel.” (For the record, roughly 20% of Israel’s citizens are Arabs.) From press reports, we learn that he believes that a Jew looking for an apartment should get preference over a gentile. Aviner’s colleague, Rabbi Yosef Scheinen, who heads the Ashdod Yeshiva, asserts that “The land of Israel is designated for the people of Israel. This is what the Holy One Blessed Be He intended…. Racism originated in the Torah.”

All this claptrap began with Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, when, in a formal religious ruling, he forbade Jewish residents of Safed from renting to Arab students enrolled at a college in the city. (I use the term “rabbi” throughout for purposes of identification only, not as an honorific.) The rabbis’ letter comes to support Eliahu, and urges the neighbors of anyone renting or selling property to Arabs to caution that person and then to inform the community. “The neighbors and acquaintances [of a Jew who sells or rents to an Arab] must distance themselves from the Jew, refrain from doing business with him, deny him the right to read from the Torah, and similarly [ostracize] him until he goes back on this harmful deed,” the letter reads.

It is not known whether the signers of the letter were aware of the storm their words would kick up — or, if they were, whether that gave them any pause, since they see their argument as not only permitted but required by Halacha, Jewish law.

Act II: The offensive letter provoked considerable outraged response. From President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (the letter “shames the Jewish people”) to scholars, lawyers, politicians and celebrities, the denunciations challenge the growing perception that Israel is descending a slippery slope to an irreversible xenophobia. As Boaz Okon, legal editor of Yediot Aharanot, Israel’s largest newspaper, wrote in a front-page editorial in early December: “In 2004, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel sought to rein in inciting rabbis by instituting disciplinary proceedings against them based on the Jewish religious services law, which forbids a rabbi to behave ‘in a manner unbecoming the standing of a rabbi in Israel.’ Nothing was done. The feeble response only increased the rabbis’ impudence. And so it happens that rabbis can excel in quoting Biblical verses but still have the morals of gang leaders…. The criminal code states explicitly that ‘anyone who publishes something with the aim of racist incitement is subject to five years of imprisonment.’ Racism is defined there as ‘persecution, humiliation, shaming… or inciting antagonism towards… parts of the population… due to affiliation with a particular race or national-ethnic origin.’”(There has as yet been no indication that any of the offending signers of the letter will be removed from their official positions.)

Perhaps more important, the letter has been condemned by people and institutions that might have seemed unlikely. These include, inter alia, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Rabbi Aharon Steinman, widely regarded as the Haredi world’s most respected rabbinic luminaries. Elyashav felicitously remarked that “there are rabbis who must have their pens taken away from them.” Some moderate leaders of the national religious camp, most notably Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, joined in the denunciation, holding that the offensive letter is based on a particular approach to Jewish law, but that other approaches are available. In Lichtenstein’s view, the ruling that anyone selling an apartment to a gentile must be ostracized “is completely false.”

The Rabbinical Council of America, America’s principal organization of Orthodox rabbis, somewhat nervously added its voice to the condemnation: “[I]t is wrong and unacceptable to advocate blanket exclusionary policies directed against minorities of other faiths or ethnic groups. Of all people, Jews should know that such practices are beyond the pale, having ourselves suffered from them in the past.”

Finally, an especially insightful commentary on the contretemps was published (pseudonymously) in Ami, a new weekly magazine of the American Haredi community. The author’s reasoning provides a window into the habits of the Haredi mind. He takes account of the halachic reasoning behind the letter, but finds it inadequate. Whether the application of the classic prohibition against sales to non-Jews applies to contemporary residents of Israel, especially given geopolitical realities, is far from a simple matter. “There are, for starters, a number of straightforward halachic issues that come into play. Like whether the issur applies to monotheistic believers like Muslims; whether it is operative when something is gained by its suspension; and whether it may be superseded, as certain other halachos are, by concern for eivah, or ill will.”

Indeed, he goes on to write, the very concept of a “Jewish and democratic state entails a degree of tension. For at least some national-religious decisors, the “Jewish” part of that designation is central to Israel’s identity; the state, to them, is the genesis of redemption. And, as such, international chagrin may be less of a factor in weighing an issue like the prohibition in question. By contrast, the charedi view is that Klal Yisrael today remains decidedly in Golus [Exile], even on the holy soil of our land. And, as a result, Israel is but a state like any other and, like any other, must have regard for wider world opinion.” My conclusion: All is not (yet) lost.

Act III: If that seems a premature conclusion, have a look at the blog the Magnes Zionist. The blog’s proprietor, Jeremiah Haber — the pseudonym for an Orthodox professor of Jewish studies — discusses there the tension between a Jewish state and a democratic state and decisively rejects the “moderate” effort to handle the controversy by including Israel’s Arabs as resident aliens, thereby covered by the Torah’s instruction that “The stranger who lives with you will be like the citizen. And you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, I am the Lord.” As Haber insists, these “strangers” happen to be full-fledged citizens of Israel. Period; end of discussion.

This shameless theater of the absurd will persist in one form or another, outrageous statements followed by outraged responses, until the underlying battle is finally joined. That is the battle to de-link synagogue and state. There is no third way, no ingenious compromise. But that battle, which will be exceedingly painful, cannot even begin to be fought until the matter of peace between Israel and its neighbors is finally resolved. In the meantime, the entire Jewish world should continue to skirmish, as best it can, against those who currently behave as Judaism’s Auto-Defamation League.


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