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