This fire is still burning: Racism is spreading

Rabbis' ban on the rental or sale of property to non-Jews demonstrates lack of understanding for the basic currency of life in a liberal democracy.

By MICHAEL MARMUR
December 7, 2010 23:21
3 minute read.
SAFED CHIEF Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu

Eliyahu 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

 
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Fifty Orthodox rabbis, most of them recipients of state funding, have just declared a ban on the rental or sale of property to non-Jews. They cite a number of halachic precedents, including the fear of intermarriage which apparently will ensue if such property deals are concluded. They also note that prices will fall if such transactions take place. It’s the Aramaic version of “there goes the neighborhood.”

If we allow these declarations to pass with no comment, there goes Judaism. If the true voice of Judaism is one which provides a mandate for bigotry and a license for racism, then our crisis is of epic proportions.

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There are precedents for the position adopted by the 50 saintly rabbis. The Bible itself does not read like an advertisement for intergroup dialogue.

The questions then become: How do you understand the essence of Judaism, and how long are you prepared to stay silent as the soul of Judaism is kidnapped? The declaration by these rabbis is shameful, harmful and wrong. Its argumentation may be sound, but its core is putrid. It demonstrates a breathtaking lack of understanding for the basic currency of life in a liberal democracy.

I just heard a very moving interview on the radio with Yona Yahav, the mayor of Haifa. He is no Jewish scholar, nor does he pretend to be. But as mayor of a city in which Jews and Arabs try to live together, he pointed out the obscenity of the rabbinic ruling and contrasted it with the displays of solidarity and good citizenship which characterized the past few days in the North. Jews and Arabs (and others too) fought the fire together, and often demonstrated great heroism and humanity in the process.

Last week, before the fire in the Carmel, evidence of the smouldering embers of bigotry was provided by a major survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute. It found that 53% of the Jewish public believes that the state is entitled to encourage Arabs to emigrate from Israel. I wonder if the 53% are prepared to think through the implications of this kind of ‘encouragement,’ and if the remaining 47% are ready and able to dampen these flames before all control is lost.

I am a bleeding-heart liberal. My heart is indeed bleeding, but not perhaps for the reason commonly attributed. It is true that the victims of this kind of intolerance deserve our sympathy.



My heart goes out to every non-Jewish citizen of this country whenever they are the victims of inequity. But it is for Judaism that my heart bleeds; if it cannot show the kind of moral focus and conceptual suppleness needed to face up to the challenges of the day. Bigotry makes us stupid, and it puts the success of our enterprise at risk. A Judaism which enjoins me to deny the civil rights and human dignity of any person does not deserve the monopoly on the brand name, nor is it worthy of state funding.

Judaism should never add fuel to our basest prejudices and lowest emotions. It is meant to give form to our highest aspirations and deepest yearnings.

WE ARE coming to the end of Hanukka, our fire festival. Some see it as a mandate for intolerance.

After all, Mattathias lashed out against the Hellenizing assimilators. Here again, the question at stake is how you understand Judaism. Are the candles symbols of bigotry or of boundary maintenance, of hatred or of hope? The fire in the Carmel is finally out. The fire of racism and intolerance is still burning. Indeed, it is spreading. If you are a Jew who cares about Judaism and Israel, regardless of your denominational affiliation, you need to stand up and say: This rabbinic ruling is wrong. Those within the four ells of halachic discourse will conduct the struggle from their vantage point. Those outside will use the tools available to them.

This fire threatens all. We have to douse the flames of bigotry with the life-giving waters which flow within a Judaism of humanity. Why don’t all those who strive for such a Judaism get our act together? We learned in this last crisis that when the situation is urgent, rivals and even enemies can cooperate. This fire is still burning. It is time to sound the alarm.

The writer is vice president for academic affairs of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

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