Religious Affairs: Racism, Zionism or halacha?

The rabbinic statement prohibiting renting or selling homes to gentiles in Israel has prompted condemnations but hasn't led to legal action?

December 10, 2010 16:32
SAFED CHIEF Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu

Eliyahu 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

‘If this is incitement to racism, then not only the rabbis should be prosecuted, not only Maimonides and Rabbi Yosef Karo who wrote the Shulhan Aruch, but also the Zionist movement, the State of Israel, the Jewish National Fund and the Supreme Court, all of which promoted and endorsed the notion that this land is the Jewish homeland.”

So said Avichay Buaron, of the statement signed initially by 47 municipal rabbis, which cites the halachic stance against renting or selling a house or plot of land in Israel to a non-Jew.

Buaron, who manages the Ma’ayanei Hayeshua movement that promotes Jewish values, was one of the figures behind the initiative to amass the signatures of public rabbis. The initiative followed the public outcry when a few months ago, Safed’s Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliahu made public a similar edict he issued regarding his city. It was a grassroots movement, Buaron said, to make public and give legitimacy not only to the rabbinic stances but also the emotions in the Jewish street.

“The consensus in the general Jewish public in Israel is widespread and against renting or selling homes to Arabs, but whoever dares express is faces aggression,” he said. “There is a public sentiment preventing us from saying what we believe, that we love the Land of Israel, that we are Zionists and prefer our Jewish brethren over Arabs, that we are proud in the national home for the Jewish people in Israel.”

SINCE TUESDAY, when the rabbis’ letter became public, some 200 additional rabbis – serving as educators or neighborhood rabbis – have signed a very similar statement circulated by various bodies hoping to “save the State of Israel from a silent takeover” by Arab elements, who with Iranian and Saudi support, have determined to undermine the Jewish presence by buying out entire areas in the country, Buaron said.

The fact that it is rabbis and not politicians countering the described phenomenon is because spiritual and educational leaders are committed to higher, eternal values, and also willing to pay the price for their beliefs, Buaron explained.

“This is indeed the state’s problem, but it won’t take care of it because its legal advisers terrorize it,” he said. “Don’t forget that it was a Mattathias the high priest who led the rebellion against the Greeks that we celebrate at this time of year.”

There are other rabbis, however, who object to the letter, such as Ramat Gan Chief Rabbi Ya’acov Ariel, who also heads the national-religious Tzohar rabbinic organization and is one of the most important adjudicators for the nationalreligious pubic.

In a written statement Tuesday, Ariel said that selling houses to gentiles should not be prohibited, and proceeded to cite the ruling of the late chief rabbi Isaac Herzog, who wrote that although the Torah prohibited showing gentiles in Israel mercy and allowing them to stay after the land’s conquest (lo tehonem), in a democratic state one could not discriminate between one citizen and another. 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.”

Rabbi Haim Druckman, head of the Bnei Akiva yeshivot, issued an announcement on Thursday denying he signed the statement, following reports in the media he had, since he objects to all-inclusive statements against non-Jews. At the same time, he expressed his identification with the national struggle, seeking to preserve Israel as the Jewish state, and said he was aware of the struggle in Safed against the hostile elements seeking to damage its Jewish character.

TUESDAY’S LETTER was roundly condemned by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, politicians and liberal movements, and even slammed by Orthodox rabbis, such as Yehuda Gilad of Kibbutz Lavi, as a “distortion of Judaism,” but it is the justice minister who has the authority to file a complaint against municipal rabbis, who do not answer directly to the Chief Rabbinate or the Religious Affairs Ministry.

As of press time, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman has made no such move, nor has the Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein, despite the demands from various bodies to do so. Weinstein, in fact, is the subject of a High Court of Justice petition filed by the Israel Religious Action Center in the beginning of December, which demanded that he be held in contempt of the court for not reopening the procedures against Eliahu for incitement to racism. In 2006, the state agreed to withdraw the charge, after he retracted statements regarding not renting apartments to Arabs, and committed to refrain from such sentiment in the future.

IRAC’s recent petition came before the recent letters which are basically in support of Eliahu’s stances, and follow numerous attempts in the past few months to galvanize Weinstein into legal action against him.

The fact that more than 250 prominent rabbis could sign the letter is only due to the legal system’s inaction in Eliahu’s case, Einat Horowitz, an attorney for IRAC, said on Thursday.

“They have a deep fear of dealing with the rabbinic and religious establishment, and that fear is the downfall of us all,” she said of the legal establishment headed by Weinstein and Neeman.

Regarding the question if it would be legally difficult to prove incitement to racism through a halachic statement, Horowitz pointed out the High Court of Justice ruling on Rabbi Ido Elba, who in 1996 was sentenced to two years in prison on that charge. The court ruled that one can be charged with incitement to racism if he assembled halachic sources and quotes to prove a contemporary point.

However, charging Eliahu and the other rabbi’s with racial incitement would be legally difficult, since the letter issued by Eliahu in Safed nine months ago as well as the recent statement of city rabbis do not mention “Arabs,” but rather “gentiles.”

Since “gentiles” is not a race, proving racial incitement is problematic, explained attorney Dr. Aviad Hacohen. The original statements made by Eliahu last decade were about “Arabs,” which is why court proceedings could take place against him in 2006.

In addition, Hacohen continued, it would be hard to prove that the alleged incitement led to direct acts, especially due to the fact that in the nine months since Eliahu published his edict, it would be hard to point out actions committed against non-Jews in the city, primarily before October when the adjudication was repeated and received public attention.

Disciplinary and educational measures, he added, are an entirely different question.

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