Forty-seven state-employed rabbis have signed a statement, made public Tuesday, which quotes the halachic stance against renting or selling a house or plot of land to a non- Jew in Israel.
“In response to many people’s questions, we hereby reply that it is prohibited by the Torah to sell a house or a field in the Land of Israel to a gentile,” the letter begins before proceeding to quote Maimonides, the Shulhan Aruch and other sources. The letter notes the danger of intermarriage, the potential damage to the religious beliefs of Jewish neighbors who might be influenced by non-Jews, and the damage to the value of real estate in the area.
It follows a similar ruling issued by Safed’s chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliahu, some nine months ago. That ruling came to the public’s notice in October, leading Minority Affairs Minister Avishai Braverman to call for Eliahu’s firing, and the Israel Religious Action Center to demand a criminal investigation against the rabbi for racial incitement.
Tuesday’s statement seemed to be an attempt to garner broad rabbinic support for Eliahu, which would make his ouster difficult. It also sought to prove that his edict was based on halachic, and not racial, grounds, and thus substantiate his right as a rabbi to issue it.
Although Eliahu was a signatory of Tuesday’s letter, he did not initiate it. The initiative came from a private citizen from Netanya, an aide to Safed’s rabbi stressed on Tuesday night. Other signatories included the national religious and haredi rabbis heading the rabbinates of Metulla, Karmiel, Rishon Lezion, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Hod Hasharon, Herzliya, Ra’anana, Ma’aleh Adumim, Rehovot and Eilat.
When contacted, spokesmen for Israel’s chief rabbis refused to address the letter or the issue of real estate and gentiles, saying they perceived the matter as one that surpassed the boundaries of Torah.
“The topic is not solely halachic, and there are political and security aspects to it as well,” a spokesman for Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger said Tuesday night. “As such, the Chief Rabbinate, as a state institution, will under no terms deal with the issue.”
During recent tours of Israeli cities, the spokesman continued, mayors and chief rabbis told Metzger that Iranian and Saudi elements were subsidizing the acquisition of real estate as part of a “silent occupation,” even at prices way above market value, which increases a seller’s temptation.
Metzger would not address these allegations from a halachic perspective in his capacity as chief rabbi and head of the national rabbinic council, but does intend to present the case to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to learn how the state intends to address the issue.
Netanyahu roundly condemned calls not to rent apartments to non-Jews, saying the Torah teaches us to “love the stranger.” He made the comment at the start of the National Bible Contest for Adults in Jerusalem on Tuesday, saying that non-Jews are also citizens of the country.
“How would we feel if someone said not to sell apartments to Jews?,” the prime minister said. “We would protest, and we do protest when it is said among our neighbors. It is forbidden that such things are said about Jews or Arabs.”
Netanyahu said such calls were forbidden in a democratic state, “especially in a Jewish democratic state that respects Jewish tradition and the Bible.” Israel, he said, “completely rejects” this call.
Rabbi Ya’acov Ariel, chief rabbi of Ramat Gan, head of the national-religious Tzohar rabbinic organization and one of the most important adjudicators for the national-religious pubic, did not sign the letter and said that selling houses to gentiles should not be prohibited.
In a written statement, Ariel noted the ruling of the late chief rabbi Isaac Herzog, who wrote that although the Torah cited a prohibition against showing gentiles in Israel mercy and allowing them to stay after the land’s conquest (lo techonem), in a democratic state one could not discriminate between one citizen and another. What’s more, Ariel wrote, it could lead to discrimination against Jews abroad. Nonetheless, he added another quote from Herzog, who stressed that “this is in regard to arbitrary sales. But if there is a danger of ousting Jews from land in Israel, the state must provide special limitations.”
Several dozen people gathered outside Independence Hall in Tel Aviv on Tuesday to protest against the letter. The rally was quickly organized by the New Israel Fund after the first reports of its existence emerged on Israeli news sites. The call to protest went out mainly via Facebook and other social networking sites.
Speakers at the protest focused largely on the fact that the signatories were state employees whose salaries were paid by the Israeli taxpayer, and that a letter calling for racial discrimination in housing violated Israeli law. Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz blasted the rabbis for what he said was their twisted interpretation of Judaism.
“What these rabbis represent has nothing to do with Judaism, no connection to Jewish values, and definitely no connection to the democratic values of Israel,” Horowitz said. He added that the letter was consistent with what he called “a racist, fascist, ugly wave sweeping through Israel, calling for the exclusion of entire segments of Israeli society – not only Arabs, but also Ethiopians, haredim, homosexuals, everyone who is a bit different.”
Kadima MK Orit Zuaretz also addressed the crowd and called for Netanyahu to take a more public stance against the signatories.
“These rabbis receive their money from the Israeli establishment,”
Zuaretz said. “If the prime minister does not come out against their
actions, the only conclusion we can reach is that he agrees with the
petition.”Herb Keinon contributed to this report.