The conflict between the Jewish state and the democratic state is growing apace. The rabbis’ letter forbidding Jews to rent homes to non-Jews (meaning, mostly, Arabs) is attracting a steadily growing list of signatories. As of Thursday night it had about 300 rabbis signed on, according to a report on Israel National News, the English website of the settlers’ Arutz Sheva (Channel 7) radio.
Of the total, 47 are said to be chief rabbis of Israeli communities or municipalities, which is to say, public servants whose salaries are paid by the Israeli taxpayer. The letter declares violators to be subject to niddui, a mild version of excommunication in which, among other things, the miscreant may pray in a Jewish congregation but may not have the honor of being called to the Torah.
The joint statement follows and expands a ban issued in Safed in the Galilee in October by that city’s chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliyahu. He has spoken repeatedly against the growing number of Israeli Arab students enrolling in the local community college and seeking housing in the city. His initial statement had the backing of 18 other rabbis, mostly from Safed.
So far it’s being treated like another one of those unpleasant incidents where someone speaks out, opponents complain and everyone forgets. But this is a rebellion by a major segment of Israel’s religious leadership, working from what has become a very mainstream school of Jewish religious thought within Israel. Shame and moral condemnation seem to have no effect, because they believe theirs is the correct reading of God’s word.
It’s important to point out that this is not a movement within Haredi or ultra-Orthodox Judaism. In fact, the letter has been condemned in very strong and direct terms by Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, arguably the senior rabbi of Haredi Jewry. He’s the head of the Council of Torah Sages of Degel haTorah, the party of non-Hasidic Haredi Ashkenazim (the group also known as Lithuanians, Litvaks, Mitnagdim and yeshivish) and the closest associate of Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv, the Gadol Hador. Steinman said publicly that the signers of the letter “should have their pens taken away from them.” His statement prompted two signers to withdraw their signatures.
In fact, the rabbis involved are mostly from the National Religious (modern Orthodox) community that supports the settlers, with a sizeable sprinkling of prominent Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis.
Before my fair-minded readers get all crazy on me, let’s stipulate that there is no inherent contradiction between a Jewish state and a democratic state. Israel could be as Jewish as France is French or Sweden is Swedish and be just as democratic, no more, no less. That’s what Herzl and his contemporaries envisioned. Unfortunately, that’s not what’s going on right now.
The government seems stymied. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has condemned the statement, but hasn’t suggested that the government intends to do anything about it. Remember, others have been charged and punished for inciting racism. But it’s always involved an individual, or a marginal grouping like Meir Kahane’s Kach. In this case, we’re talking about a significant group of leading rabbis, including a healthy chunk of the official religious leadership of the Jewish state.
The attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, reportedly has ordered an investigation into whether any criminal activity is involved. Nobody sounds too enthusiastic about dealing with it, though. The initial response from the attorney general’s spokesman, following a formal complaint submitted by a Knesset member, says Weinstein considers the “statements attributed to the rabbis” (we’re talking about a written public rabbinic pronouncement, for heaven’s sake) (so to speak) “problematic in several aspects” and “inappropriate for public officials.” Prepare to be underwhelmed.
It’s not clear whether the government has the authority to fire them, even though it pays their salaries, because under the law they answer to their local religious councils. Apparently the chief rabbis of Israel have the authority to order the religious councils to fire them, but it’s unlikely they would do that unless they were forced to do so, and it’s hard to see that kind of pressure being brought in the current political atmosphere.
Of course, the prime minister could take a stand and demand action. That is, if he cared. So far there’s no evidence that he does. One might hope that the minister of justice would speak out, but the minister, Yaakov Ne’eman, is on the record as advocating that rabbinic law be given greater standing within Israeli law.
It’s also hard to see the government, especially a government of the right and religious parties, going toe to toe with the country’s spiritual leadership on what the holy men view as a fundamentally religious obligation, a matter over which a secular government should have no authority. It would be a bit like the government overturning a ruling on kashrut. Or conversion. If the French or Swedish or California government tried to do something like that, the entire Jewish community would come down on them like a ton of bricks. In fact, something like that happens somewhere several times a week. Just look at the websites of the Zionist Organization of America — or the American Jewish Committee, for that matter — to see how often offenses are committed against Jewish rights, values or sensibilities by some entity somewhere. Note, too, how seriously the actionable offenses against Jews stack up against this religious ruling by a segment of the official Israeli rabbinate.
Speaking of which, what are American Jewish religious-rights advocacy groups saying about this? Well, here is an extract from the initial response of the Anti-Defamation League, featured on the ADL’s home page:
It is outrageous and unacceptable that rabbis across Israel are promoting blatant discrimination against non-Jews. The State of Israel was established in the wake of the most horrific expression of hatred to be a Jewish and democratic state. All citizens of Israel are equal under the law and should be treated with respect by their fellow citizens.It is extremely disturbing to hear religious leaders – who are supposed to represent and uphold Jewish values – promote such a prejudicial course for Israeli society. That many of these rabbis are state employees makes their action that much more troubling.
Here is what the American Jewish Committee has on the topic:
AJC expressed dismay at a religious injunction issued by six orthodox rabbis in the Israeli city of Bnei Brak forbidding residents to rent apartments to African refugees and other migrants. The ruling, based on the rabbis’ interpretation of Halacha, or Jewish religious law, follows a similar call from a group of Tel Aviv rabbis in July, and comes amid rising tension between migrants and established residents of poorer neighborhoods in Israel’s cities.
O.K., so it’s not exactly the same topic. It’s from early November, and it’s about discrimination against African refugees, not against citizens of Israel who happen to be Arab. Also, it’s by six Haredi rabbis in a Tel Aviv suburb, not 300 prominent rabbis from around the country. But it’s the closest thing they’ve got to this subject, unless you count this. Or this.
Here is the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s contribution to the topic:
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).