Imagine you are living in New York or London. The local imam or Catholic
priest puts out a public statement to the effect that people should not rent
their houses to anyone who is noticeably Jewish.
They look different, he
says, some of them dress in strange garments and they bring the general property
No, the religious leader says, I have nothing against Jews
in principle, but they should stick to their own areas, not infiltrate into good
Christian or Muslim neighborhoods. Anyone in the community who rents or sells to
a member of the Jewish faith will no longer be welcome for prayers.
is a simple word to describe such a statement – racism. It is the sort of
practice which in any true democracy would immediately be condemned.
if it was practiced against Jews, the many Jewish protection agencies, be it the
ADL in the US or the Community Security Trust in the UK, would immediately
request that criminal charges be brought against the perpetrators.
precisely this form of blatant racism which was practiced last week by the chief
rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliahu, and some of his rabbinical
They issued a statement telling residents not to rent or sell
apartments to Arabs, especially not to the students who come to Safed to study
at the regional college.
Anyone renting an apartment to an Arab should
not, in the words of Eliahu, be made welcome in his local synagogue, and should
definitely not be called up to the Torah. For a secular Jew, this may not seem
significant, but for a religious citizen, for whom his synagogue and community
are central to his social acceptance, this is as harsh a punishment as one could
imagine; it is akin to social ostracism.
No response was heard from the
government, while both the (secular) mayor of the city and the (religious)
president of the Safed college refused to condemn the statements, other than to
say that they would not have said such things. Their lack of public condemnation
made them accomplices. No excuses, or claims that Arab students change the
nature of the city and its Jewish spirituality, especially on Shabbat, or that
they smoke nargilas in areas where this was not the custom, could disguise the
Nor is this the first time. In recent years, some of the
more extreme elements in the world of religious Zionism and the extreme Right
have issued similar statements concerning residential areas in mixed Jewish-Arab
cities such as Lod, Ramle, Jaffa, Acre and Nazareth. Each time it happens, the
police or the attorney-general begin an inquiry which results in nothing, while
the religious world – even those who would not necessarily make or agree with
such statements – is enraged that its rabbis should be questioned for their
“religious” teachings. Religion, they will argue, is not subject to the rules of
FOR MANY of us who grew up in the world of religious Zionism,
for whom the struggle to combine statehood and modernity with the daily
practices of a religious lifestyle were central to the way in which we view the
world, it is this hijacking of religion in the name of xenophobia and – yes,
I’ll use that word again – racism which has pushed so many of us away. It is an
embarrassment that people, under the guise of religious leadership, relate in
such a way to another group, in a manner which is as far removed from Jewish
teachings as one can imagine.
Yes, I can hear the arguments. Jews in
North America and the UK are not an enemies of the state.
threaten the safety and lives of the average citizen, while here in Israel,
Arabs constitute a fifth column and would like the Jewish state to
Why should we behave as friends and neighbors, as democratic
equals, if they threaten our very existence? But it is precisely this form of
Jewish racism which pushes the vast majority of normal Arab citizens – those
wishing to progress in life, obtain a profession and gainful employment – into
the camp of the “enemy.”
As they realize that no action will be taken
against those who make such statements, as they understand that the notion of a
“Jewish and democratic” state is good only for the Jews, why indeed should they
remain upright citizens? A country which insists on a loyalty oath for only some
of its citizens, those who do not belong to the ethnic or national majority, is
a country which quickly slips down the road to racism.
We will continue
to cry that we are not an apartheid state, that we do not practice
discrimination, that we are the “only” true democracy in the Middle East. But as
long as we allow the racist comments of Eliahu and others like him to go
unanswered, we are betraying the tenets on which this state was
As a “light unto the nations,” we should be showing the
world how ethnic groups can live side by side, especially where political and
national tensions exist.
By following the policies that the state, with
its loyalty oath, and religious leaders, with their calls to close the housing
market to Arabs, are advocating, we are proving to the world that we are unable
to be a Jewish and democratic state. And even worse, we are proving that the
Jewish state does not practice Jewish values or demonstrate Jewish morality. It
is a betrayal of what the State of Israel is all about, and puts us into the
same category as all those states that, throughout history, persecuted and
excluded Jews. It is reverse anti-Semitism, no less.
The writer is
professor of Political Geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of
International Journal of Geopolitics.