Ask The Rabbi: Land ban

What were the legal arguments against the Safed rabbis who prohibited selling or renting land to non-Jews?

December 31, 2010 15:23
4 minute read.
Zvieli and Eliahu's shared balcony

Safed balcony. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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A few weeks ago, I wrote a column that explained the historical interpretation and application of the biblical verse (Deuteronomy 7:2) upon which Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliahu and other local rabbis based their controversial ban on selling or renting property to non-Jews. Subsequently, a nationwide group (including several municipal rabbis) declared its support for this ban, which in turn led to massive condemnation from many quarters, including many prominent rabbis. I will try to articulate the various sides of the argument, even though I state from the outset that I oppose the ban.

To understand the position of the Safed rabbis, one must appreciate the perceived political background from their perspective. Safed – a city of historic religious and national significance – serves as the central provider of medical, economic and educational resources in Galilee, which has seen a rapid increase in its Arab and Muslim population relative to its Jewish inhabitants. Some local figures have found this trend (duplicated in cities like Lod and Acre) troubling, especially given that certain groups like the Islamic Movement and its leader, Raed Salah, support Hamas and similar causes.

These rabbis further fear that over-fraternization with friendlier neighbors might lead to intermarriage. Concomitantly, some political figures claim that international Palestinian sympathizers have recently attempted to purchase strategically located real estate (such as Jerusalem’s Nof Zion project) to prevent Jewish settlement, even as the Palestinian Authority continues to forbid land sales to Jews.

Critics have responded by noting that even if legitimate political concerns exist, one cannot deny the rights of non-Jewish Israeli citizens who reside in the area (and elsewhere) to equal property rights. (In one notorious case, a Holocaust survivor was harassed after renting his apartment to three Druse students, themselves IDF veterans, who are pursuing degrees at Safed College.) Furthermore, they contended that such discrimination was the type from which Jews had suffered for many centuries. If Galilee needs more Jewish inhabitants, then the appropriate response is greater Zionist education, not discrimination.

Beyond these criticisms, the ban was criticized from rabbinic quarters for a number of legal reasons. Rabbis Yosef Elyashiv and Aharon Steinman, leading haredi decisors, harshly criticized the public nature of the declaration, stating that it will lead to anti-Semitism and similar bans against Diaspora Jews. They further declared the ban as hypocritical, since many of the municipal rabbis support heter mechira, the legal fiction that circumvents this prohibition and others to avoid losses of Sabbatical year produce (Shabbat Ha’aretz, Ch. 12).

Rabbi Haim Steiner, a defender of the ban, retorted that heter mechira is entirely different, since it is a temporary sale that actually sustains Jewish settlement. Rabbi Eliahu further countered that these haredi decisors had declared a similar real estate ban, albeit more quietly.

More fundamental critiques, with which I identify, were offered from the Religious Zionist camp. Rabbi Haim Druckman, head of Yeshivot Bnei Akiva, contended that one may prohibit real estate deals with hostile “enemies of the state” or those who might wrest territorial control from Jewish hands. Yet it remains unacceptable to issue a blanket prohibition against all gentiles, which included many non-hostile gentiles, such as loyal citizens, college students, IDF veterans and health care providers in hospitals.

In a statement supported by the Tzohar rabbinic organization, Ramat Gan Chief Rabbi Ya’acov Ariel cited the obligation that the state has taken to provide equal rights to its citizens.

He endorsed the classic stance of Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Isaac Herzog (Techumin 2), who declared that as long as such real estate deals were not intended to harm Jews or Israeli control over the territory, they remained permissible.

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etzion launched a more trenchant critique, contending that the Safed rabbis greatly oversimplified Jewish law. It remains unquestionable that there is a basis within halachic sources to prohibit selling land to gentiles within Israel (Beit Yosef CM 249:2). Yet many figures, including Rabbi Menachem Hameiri (Avoda Zara 20a) and Rabad (Hilchot Avoda Zara 10:6), limit the entire prohibition to the historical seven Canaanite nations, while others applied different dispensations to the rule. He further noted that a strong (albeit not exclusive) tradition, beginning with the medieval school of the Tosafists, severely limited this and other similar prohibitions. These points and others were noted years ago by Rabbi Haim David Halevi in sweeping essays that presented a halachic stance in tune with democratic values (Aseh Lecha Rav 4:1, 8:68, 9:30).

In short, genuine political problems may exist in various parts of the country. But the solutions lie in education and political wisdom, not in overreaching halachic statements that distort – and disgrace – Jewish law and its adherents.

The writer, online editor of Tradition and its blog Text & Texture (, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.

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