Let the rabbis go

If rabbis wish to express their opinions, let them do so as individuals, not as representatives of the State of Israel.

December 9, 2010 22:44
3 minute read.
SAFED CHIEF Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu

Eliyahu 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

Close to 300 rabbis, including dozens of city rabbis who receive salaries from their respective municipalities, have signed a declaration forbidding Jews to rent or sell property to Arabs.

Such rentals or sales, claim the rabbis, cause economic and spiritual damage to neighbors by precipitating a fall in property values and increasing the possibility of intermarriage. Selling or renting to Arabs also creates the potential for bodily harm since “there are those among them [Arabs] who are our [Jews’] enemies and endanger our lives.”

The rabbis have also urged communities to use various means of coercion against anyone poised to sell or rent to an Arab, including “to advertise his name in public, to distance him, to prevent trade from being done with him, to prevent him from reading from the Torah and so forth until he reverses his decision that causes harm to so many people.”

Following a similar declaration issued several weeks ago by Safed’s chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliahu, an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor who rented out rooms to three Arab students received threats that he would have his house burned down.

An emotionally charged public outcry, including from Holocaust survivors, has conjured up the Jewish people’s long history of persecution as a moral legacy not to do unto others what was done to Jews. Some have called to indict the rabbis for incitement.

Still, it is not at all clear whether the attorney-general could obtain a conviction. To do so, state prosecutors would have to prove in a court of law that the rabbis’ statements had a reasonable chance of leading to violence and that they intended to bring about such violence.

And short of criminal indictment, it is no easy matter to fire the well-ensconced city rabbis.

But perhaps a completely different solution should be considered. The rabbis’ declaration is yet another example of the irreconcilable tensions that result from tying religion to state.

AS CITIZENS living in a democratic state, rabbis are entitled to full intellectual freedom and should be allowed to interpret Judaism however they wish, as long as they do not break the law by, say, inciting their followers to perform violent acts.

But at the same time, city rabbis, as well as neighborhood rabbis, should not receive a salary from the State of Israel for expressing their opinions on a wide range of issues. Nor should they be permitted to exploit the powers and prestige given to them by virtue of their status as public servants to leverage their influence over public opinion.

As a Jewish state, Israel must keep in place laws that reflect its very raison d’etre, such as the Law of Return or legislation that encourages in-marriage among Jews.

But as a democratic state, Israel has an obligation to ensure that the basic human rights of all Israeli citizens – Jews and non-Jews alike – are faithfully protected. The state’s employment of hundreds of city and neighborhood rabbis who express racist, xenophobic opinions upsets the delicate balance that must be maintained between Israel’s Jewish and democratic dimensions.

Even from a purely functional perspective, it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is no need for the state to bankroll hundreds of city and neighborhood rabbis at a cost to the taxpayer of millions of shekels a month. Jerusalem has gone without chief rabbis since 2002, and the only ones who seem to care are the religious political parties who see the appointment as an opportunity to enhance their influence.

Nor is there is a need for city rabbis to provide kosher supervision. Experts in this field do it just as well, if not better. Besides, kosher supervision could easily be privatized.

Free-market forces that reward quality and punish incompetence, combined with a consumer protection agency that penalizes fraud, would ensure that the quality of kosher supervision remains high.

This arrangement would undoubtedly work better than a state-funded religious bureaucracy which, like other public sector service providers, lacks any real incentive to improve. Marriage registration could operate in a similar fashion.

City rabbis’ public declaration against Arab Israelis illustrates the difficulty of balancing Israel’s Jewish and democratic dimensions. To protect religious freedom as well as Israeli democracy, city rabbis should stop receiving a salary from the state’s coffers.

If rabbis wish to express their opinions, let them do so as individuals, not as representatives of the State of Israel.

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