(photo credit: Courtesy)
There are many disturbing things about the fact that a few dozen rabbis signed
on to the initiative of Rabbi Shmuel Eliahu of Safed to persuade Jews to refrain
from selling or renting homes to non-Jews in Israel.
Eliahu claims to
have “evidence” that Islamist forces are providing money for Arabs to buy up
property to promote an Arab demographic takeover of the country, and evidently
some of his colleagues have been persuaded that there is an imminent
It is some small comfort that the majority of rabbis approached
by Eliahu refused to support his initiative, that the chief rabbis have
disassociated themselves from it, and that many notable rabbinic figures have
publicly condemned it.
However, the fact that a few dozen were willing to
append their names to this deplorable letter not only displays the degree to
which fear and paranoia prevail in segments of our society, but also reflects a
worrying trend toward greater insularity within the rabbinate in recent
Indeed, the halachic argumentation of Eliahu’s call reflects not
only a mean spirit, but also a narrow- minded interpretation of halacha that
completely disregards the enlightened interpretation of past chief
Eliahu’s argumentation rests on viewing Muslims and Christians as
idolaters as well as a collective threat. However, Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak
Hakohen Kook ruled categorically, on the basis of the position of the medieval
rabbinic luminary Rabbi Menahem Hameiri rejecting such categorization of
Christians and Muslims, that Jewish law requires a Jewish polity to guarantee
full civil rights to its non-Jewish citizens. This ruling was reiterated by his
successor, Chief Rabbi Isaac Halevy Herzog.
IN THE summer of 1939, after
three violent years in the course of which hundreds of Jews were killed in acts
of terror, some Jewish extremists called for and even perpetrated deeds of
violent revenge. The Sephardi chief rabbi of the British Mandate of Palestine,
Ben Zion Uziel, and the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Tel Aviv Moshe Amiel issued
powerful statements that were widely disseminated, condemning such acts and
ideas and stressed Judaism’s unqualified rejection of holding innocents –
especially a whole community – responsible for the acts of some guilty
The third Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the State of Israel,
Isser Yehuda Unterman, issued a learned pronouncement to emphasize that the
Jewish legal precept of “the ways of peace” that demands the highest ethical
conduct toward non-Jews is not a “defense mechanism,” but represents the highest
moral aspirations of Judaism.
However, it seems that many rabbis today
are, at best, plain ignorant of these positions and halachic rulings. At worst,
they reflect an insular mind-set that represent a sad regression to a medieval
view that can see only hostility all around.
While the country’s leaders
have condemned this racist advocacy, no legal steps have yet been taken against
these rabbis, most of whom are civil service employees and thus in breach of the
conditions of their employment by their very involvement in such an initiative.
Indeed Israel’s legal authorities have been notably timorous as far as the
possibility of prosecution of racist declarations when these have come from
rabbinic quarters. Nevertheless there has been a groundswell of civil
initiatives, including many rabbis who are still true to the higher ethical
values and aspirations of our heritage, to pressure the attorney general to take
the necessary action.
Such civil response represents the authentic voice
of Jewish morality and is in consonance with the above-mentioned positions of
Jewish luminaries of the State of Israel’s earlier history. Rabbi Eliahu and his
colleagues represent not only a halachic regression and a capitulation to
scaremongering, but they are guilty of nothing less than chilul hashem, a
desecration of the Divine Name, and an embarrassment to our Jewish
The writer is the Jerusalem-based international director of
interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee.