Fanning the flames

As a wave of racism sweeps the nation, the political establishment remains deafeningly silent.

racism (photo credit: courtesy)
(photo credit: courtesy)
IT STARTED IN SAFED. AND THE blaze kindled in that picturesque town wrapped in art and mysticism in the Galilee hills rivals even the recent Carmel forest fire.
Long-smoldering, the racism flare came to full public attention in early December, when Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Safed, published a religious ruling prohibiting the renting of apartments to Arabs. Within days, 47 chief rabbis from locations around Israel and the West Bank – mostly small towns and suburbs such as Even Yehuda, Gan Yavne, Herzliya, Hod Hasharon and Metula, but also large towns and even small cities such as Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ma’aleh Adumim, Rehovot, Rishon Lezion and Eilat – published rulings saying more or less the same as the edict in Safed.
Few of these rabbis have any major standing on the national scene. Still, their response was a clarion call of support for Eliyahu and for any other Jewish spiritual leader or religious scholar who takes the same stand. What’s more, it spawned similar petitions of support signed by upwards of a reported 300 rabbis.
Then events began to follow each other at a sickening pace throughout the month of December.
A gang of Jewish youths who had been attacking and terrorizing Arabs in Jerusalem, using a teenage Ethiopian girl as a decoy, was uncovered. In mid-December, an ad hoc group calling itself “Jews for a Jewish Bat Yam” organized an angry demonstration in this beach city just south of Tel Aviv-Jaffa that has long fought its image as a lower-class hotbed of crime, corruption and intolerance.
Responding to a growing presence of Arabs lured from their Israeli villages by the promise of better wages, the protest in Bat Yam highlighted another, perhaps far uglier, side to the conflict. Much of the evening program focused not on potential terror attacks or a possible takeover by non-Jews, but on the danger that Arab men pose to Jewish women, calling to mind the Jim Crow laws in the southern United States that made it virtually a capital offense for a black man to even look at a white woman. “The girls of Israel for the sons of Israel,” many of the placards in Bat Yam demanded.
“These Arabs, they speak Hebrew. They look just like us and they tempt our women,” Moshe Ben-Zikri, an activist who came all the way from Jerusalem, tells journalists, using the words “easy prey” to describe young Jewish girls. “Some guy named Arafat says his name is Ofer, and so on. Our girls don’t know these guys are Arab and they fall victim to them, and families are destroyed.”
That same week, in Tel Aviv’s lowerclass Hatikva neighborhood, several hundred Jewish residents, led by MK Michael Ben-Ari (National Union), a far-right-wing disciple of Meir Kahane, and waving the yellow flags that are Kahane’s legacy, demonstrated against migrant workers and asylum seekers who have been crossing into Israel illegally from the Egyptian-controlled Sinai and settling in the neighborhood, adding to its already disproportionate clientele of welfare services.
Ben-Ari, who grew up in Hatikva, wowed his listeners by repeating a suggestion he’d m a d e elsewhere, that money should be raised, not to improve the neighborhood, but to rent apartments for the migrants in the more upscale neighborhoods of northern Tel Aviv. “When the bleeding hearts [there] are confronted with the reality of living next door to the migrants, they will change their tune and we will see how ‘humane’ they really are,” he told the crowd.
That week, three girls, daughters of African migrants, were savagely beaten by teenagers as they walked home to their apartments in Hatikva. Within hours of that attack, in the port city of Ashdod to the south, a tire was set alight outside the door of an apartment where seven Sudanese migrants were sleeping. Five suffered smoke inhalation before they were able to break through the bars on their windows and flee.
In Jerusalem, a few days later, rabbis and right-wing agitators whipped up a crowd of several hundred against the rental and sale of apartments to Arabs.
Deliberately fanned by the nationalist and religious right, and allowed to spread by the weak, coalition-bound government, this is a conflagration of xenophobia and hatred that is spreading rapidly throughout the country, licking at some of the worst of human impulses.
SAFED’S CHIEF RABBI, SHMUEL Eliyahu, has never made secret his feelings about Arabs. He has often repeated his view that a Jew who sells or rents property in the Land of Israel to non- Jews is transgressing against halakha, or Jewish law. He has even called on the Safed Academic College to stop admitting Arabs.
In 2006, when he said these things perhaps a little too loudly and forcefully to be ignored, Israel’s attorney general at the time, Menachem Mazuz, took notice and recommended that he be charged with incitement to racism.
There was a precedent to such a charge. In 1996, Rabbi Ido Elba, from the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, just outside Hebron – which is viewed as home to some of the most fanatic of Jewish settlers – was sentenced to two years in prison. The brunt of the conviction stemmed from his efforts to obtain weapons for an alleged anti-Arab Jewish underground. But Elba had also made statements in a treatise written not long after his neighbor, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, gunned down 29 Muslim prayer-goers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron on Purim, 1994. In that essay, Elba cited instances in which, according to Jewish law, it is permissible for a Jew to kill a non-Jew, something judges all the way up to the Supreme Court labeled as clear incitement to racism.
But Mazuz, instead of confronting Eliyahu, eventually backed away after the latter agreed to tone things down. Apparently, Eliyahu toned things down so well that earlier this year, when he issued an edict against the sale or rental of Jewish property in the city – not to Arabs but this time to non-Jews – it seemed to sail through well below the state’s radar.
In October, after the rabbi’s own next door neighbor rented rooms to Muslim students, Eliyahu firmly repeated his stand at a local community center during a meeting that was said to have drawn several hundred highly annoyed people. Among them were a number of area rabbis, some of them, like Eliyahu, public employees, who added their names to the edict. To bolster his positions, Eliyahu cited passages addressing the intersection of real estate and non-Jews in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, and, for good measure, teachings by Moses Ben- Maimon, the revered 12th-century physician and Jewish scholar known also as Rambam and Maimonides, and even the Shulchan Arukh, authored by the venerated 15th- and 16th-century Rabbi Yosef Karo and roundly considered the most authoritative source for interpretations of Jewish law since ancient times.
Within days, written and verbal warnings were heard around Safed. A few days later, on a Friday evening, when local Jewish teens laid into a group of Arabs not only with epithets, but with fists, rocks and bottles, Eliyahu’s views suddenly turned up as a gargantuan blip smack dab in the middle of everyone’s radar.
THE REACTION – FOR AND against, supportive and aghast – was immediate and intense, especially following the release of the letter by the 47 municipal chief rabbis.
“These rabbis receive their money from the Israeli establishment,” MK Orit Zuaretz, of the centrist Kadima party, told a small rally in Tel Aviv the same night the letter was made public. “If the prime minister does not come out against their actions, the only conclusion we can reach is that he agrees with the petition.”
MK Nitzan Horowitz, of the left-wing Meretz party, accused the signatories of having a warped approach to Judaism. “What these rabbis represent has nothing to do with Judaism, no connection to Jewish values, and definitely no connection to the democratic values of Israel,” Horowitz, an openly gay member of Knesset and former television journalist, said at the rally. He added that he viewed the rabbis’ proclamations as further proof of “the racist, fascist, ugly wave sweeping through Israel that calls for the exclusion of entire sectors in Israeli society – not only Arabs, but also Ethiopians, haredim, homosexuals, everyone who is a bit different.”
Not surprisingly, Arab members of Knesset were the most scathing in their response. Taleb a-Sanaa (United Arab List- Ta’al), called the rabbis who had sided with Eliyahu “no better than Bin Laden.” Fellow MK Haneen Zoabi (Balad) – who raised some serious Jewish hackles late last spring when she participated in the Turkish flotilla protesting Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip – called the rabbis and their letter “the epitome of arrogance” and accused the Knesset of giving the rabbis succor. “Political opinions do not become legitimate unless they are supported by the establishment,” she complained before the plenum.
The outrage – and headlines – meant state and government leaders could not look the other way.
“All people are created in the image of God,” President Shimon Peres said in a sharply worded statement, adding that the rabbis’ words were unsuitable not only in a democracy, but in a Jewish state. He later repeated his stance during an address before a group of Israeli Arabs, telling them, “You have the absolute right to live, work and study wherever you want.”
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin also weighed in, calling the rabbis “foolish” and their act a “sin” against society in Israel. “These rabbis think they are saving the Jewish people, but [they] are digging a pit we’ll all fall into,” he declared.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he “completely rejects” the rabbis’ calls. He also put things in a historical perspective by asking, “How would we feel if someone said not to sell apartments to Jews? We would protest, and we do protest when it is said among our neighbors. It is forbidden that such things are said about Jews or Arabs.”
But Netanyahu has done little more than make a few, sporadic declarations. And at the same time, over the past few weeks, the prime minister, who says that the fight against illegal migrants is a top priority, has called the migration from Sudan and Eritrea “a serious danger” and “a flood that threatens every citizen, threatens employment of Israelis, and threatens the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel.”
Other politicians, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak (Labor), Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar (Likud), and other Labor and Likud ministers have remained noticeably silent.
Why the tepid response on the part of the politicians? Perhaps because they are pandering to right-wing politicians they need for coalition building, especially those from parties such as Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu. Or perhaps it is because they suspect that the public supports, at least latently, this wave of racism – or at the very least some of the more acceptable policies it represents, such as a preference to keep Israeli society a mosaic instead of a melting pot, and demands for a clampdown on illegal migration, which just about everyone admits is way out of control. In a recent survey conducted for the Y-net website by Gesher, some 55 percent of a representative sample of Israeli Jews expressed support for the rabbis’ letter. In a study conducted by television’s Channel Two, that number reached an alarming 74 percent.
And indeed, hordes of letters to the editor, many of them from Jewish settlements in the West Bank, have been published in the media in support of the rabbis. The talkbacks on Internet sites are even more vehement. The gist of most of these responses seems to concern the “hypocrisy” of those against the ban on property sales and rentals to Arabs, as these “leftists” are ostensibly the same people who say that Jews have no right to settle in the West Bank or East Jerusalem.
Response by rabbis has been ambivalent. But in contrast to those who signed on with Eliyahu, more than a few highly respected spiritual leaders and educators from the national religious camp, among them settlers, were no more restrained in their protests against Eliyahu and the letter signers than Peres and Rivlin.
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who heads the highly prestigious Har Etzion yeshiva in Gush Etzion, just south of Jerusalem, took issue with some of the halakhic grounds cited by the signatories. Yet he seemed even more agitated by some of the responses – “the public storm, both social and ideological; the schism among the citizenry, between and within sectors; opinion pieces in the press; and attacks from both the Right and Left on the national-religious rabbinic establishment, coming even from giants of Torah.” In essence, Lichtenstein seemed to be asking the rabbis, “What were you thinking?”
Another highly respected figure in the modern-Orthodox world, Rabbi Haim Druckman, weighed in more quietly with an effort aimed at compromise in the form of a reworked statement that substituted “hostile elements” for “non-Jews,” taking into account that there are Arabs who are loyal to the state – for example, those who serve in the Israel Defense Forces and agree to live under Israeli (read: Jewish) sovereignty.
“I identify with the rabbis’ pain,” Druckman tells The Report. “There are hostile elements that are investing a fortune to take over properties in an effort to wrest control of land from Jews. So people are angry. But the wording of the letter was wrong. The State of Israel is responsible for all its citizens, and the letter was worded much too broadly.”
There are reports that Eliyahu has agreed to use Druckman’s wording, although Druckman’s refusal to confirm this or to reveal any successes he may have had with other religious letters indicates that even these linguistic efforts have born little fruit.
Nevertheless, “hostile elements” now seems to be the operative term, with much talk among those who sympathize with the rabbis – yet who also understand the ramifications of their choice of words – about a shadowy conspiracy currently being led by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations, including Iran. The idea, they say, is to finance Arab and Islamic efforts to entice Jews to sell property for sweet sums that are far beyond market values, and thus reduce the Jewish presence in entire areas.
The epicenter of such activity is said to be in the Galilee, where Jews are no longer seen as the majority. The claim, never substantiated, seems to be gaining traction as the smoke clears and many in the national religious sector seek to repair the damage initiated by Eliyahu and exacerbated by his letter-writing colleagues.
“The letter was a mistake in every respect,” Rabbi David Stav, chief rabbi of the affluent town of Shoham, east of Tel Aviv, tells The Report. “I’m convinced that even the letter-writers don’t agree with what they said. According to them, forbidding the sale or rental to non-Jews [also] means not selling or renting to non-Jewish citizens who are loyal to the state, such as Arabs who have served in the army, or even many immigrants from the former Soviet Union. You can’t express yourself in this way.”
Stav is a graduate of Jerusalem’s prestigious Mercaz Harav yeshiva, seen by many in recent years as a hotbed of extremist settler sentiment. Yet he chairs Tzohar, an organization of Zionist rabbis that is committed to coexistence, dialogue and inclusion for Jews who have been turned off by the often harsh and restrictive standards of the country’s official religious establishment. Tzohar has also been known to stand up to respected rabbis whose statements or actions it views as harmful, counterproductive or just plain wrong.
“‘Arabs,’ ‘non-Jews’ and now ‘hostile elements’ are just terms,” he says emphatically. “It’s easy to say something and then, when you get in trouble, say you meant something else. But the interchangeability can work both ways. And if the rabbis are intentionally misrepresenting their views, that’s wrong, too.”
Yet even Stav seems to buy into the theory about oil money and real estate, while ignoring the implications of such theories.
“There is evidence of a concerted effort by hostile elements to buy up property and force the Jews out, and I’m against this,” he says, no less emphatically. “Hostile doesn’t always mean ‘violent.’ You can frighten Jews away from entire areas through terrorism, but it’s a lot easier – never mind quieter and less repulsive – simply by making the neighborhood change.”
But then, reflecting perhaps his own conflicted thinking, he reiterates, “There are non-Jews who are not hostile, and people who are not hostile cannot be barred from living somewhere just because of who they aren’t,” he says. “All of us want to strengthen the Jewish presence in the Galilee and the Negev. But look what happened. People woke up and said the rabbis are wrong, and this means a disservice has been done to these efforts.”
A disservice was apparently done elsewhere, too, with rabbis from across Judaism’s many and varied streams outside Israel – where coexistence with the “other” is paramount for Jews – quickly adding their own repartee to the mix.
The statements by Eliyahu and the other rabbis “caused great shock and pain in our communities,” said a loose coalition calling itself Rabbis against Religious Discrimination, which circulated a petition that garnered more than 750 signatories. “The attempt to root discriminatory policies based on religion or ethnicity in Torah is a painful distortion of our tradition.”
THE ULTRA-ORTHODOX COMMUNITIES in Israel have for the most part maintained a healthy distance from the issue. Knowledgeable observers say this is because, unlike the national-religious sector, for which land and politics are a central issue, the more fundamentalist groups prefer to deal solely with Jewish law – and keep government funds coming for their yeshivot and religious institutions.
“This is a political matter,” a source close to Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who at 100 is probably the most respected and revered haredi posek, or arbiter, of our day, especially among the Lithuanian misnagdim streams of ultra-Orthodoxy, tells The Report. “If it were a practical matter of halakha, someone could come to Rabbi Elyashiv and expect an answer. But he [Elyashiv] will not get involved in political issues.”
The fact, too, that this source and other ultra-Orthodox figures asked that their names not be used for this article is probably a sign of how sensitive the issue is. In fact, it’s apparently so touchy that even the country’s Chief Rabbinate, which often effaces itself in front of the haredi world, seems hesitant to interfere.
“The subject at hand is not one of pure halakha,” says Avi Blumenthal, senior aide to Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, who is widely viewed as relying on the halakhic decisions – and, perhaps, indecisions – of Eliyashiv. “There are political and security aspects involved. As such, the Chief Rabbinate, as a state body, does not intend to address the matter.”
Attorney Einat Horowitz, who runs the legal department at the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), a Reform movement advocacy group that has long been at the forefront of the fight for religious pluralism in Israel, is demanding that the government address the matter.
“He [Shmuel Eliyahu] works for a local authority. He’s paid by a local authority,” Horowitz says to The Report. “While he’s not a civil servant per se, he’s employed…by the state and the state has an obligation to ensure that public employees perform their task properly.”
So what about the state, in the form of its Ministry of Justice, which directly oversees criminal prosecutions as well as matters of misconduct among government and public employees?
Amatsya Bar-Moshe, media advisor to Justice Minister Ya’acov Neeman, tells The Report the matter of Eliyahu and the other rabbis must first go through the attorney general’s office. That office examines whether crimes have been committed, if they are prosecutable and whether there’s reasonable suspicion that an official might be guilty of conduct unbecoming a public figure.
“It could very well be that several aspects having to do with the rabbis and the letters will make it to the justice minister’s desk,” Ben-Moshe says. “Only at that time will he consider the matter and have anything to say.”
And the attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein?
The Jerusalem Report has obtained a copy of a letter to a Knesset Member written by one of Weinstein’s aides, who admits in the letter that “the statements attributed to the rabbis are quite problematic in a number of respects, and apparently – at least concerning the fact that they are public employees – do not conform to acceptable public practices.” The letter adds, however, that “the legal side of the issue is more complex, and the attorney general has instructed the relevant parties in our office to examine the [possible] existence of criminal aspects and matters of conduct that might have arisen from the statements....”
That’s not good enough for IRAC, which in early December petitioned the High Court of Justice to hold Weinstein in contempt for not reopening the investigation his predecessor had closed against Eliyahu following the suspicions of racial incitement raised in 2006.
“Weinstein did not make good on Mazuz’s promise to file new charges against Eliyahu if he made further such statements,” Horowitz says heatedly. “Of course, the attorney general must come to the conclusion that the rabbi’s most recent statements were racist…and that there are grounds to charge him with incitement to racism.”
IRAC has not stopped there, saying government inaction encourages support for Eliyahu.
“Last week we petitioned the High Court to force the justice minister to call Eliyahu to order on procedural issues, as a public servant,” she tells The Report shortly after the initial letter in support of the Safed rabbi was made public. “Because the justice minister ignored our call, other rabbis felt it was safe to sign on.”
The upshot, says Horowitz, is that inaction is a message for everyone.
“The situation is getting worse from week to week, and the person in charge of enforcing the rule of law in Israel [Justice Minister Neeman] is not doing his job. There’s no doubt that the message getting through to the public is that such behavior is OK,” she says.
HARVARD-TRAINED YEDIDIA Z.STERN is vice president of the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute, whose website describes it as an “independent, non-partisan ‘Think-and-Do Tank’ that devises ways to strengthen the moral and structural foundations of Israeli democracy.”
Stern is a modern-Orthodox Jew and a former dean of the law school at Bar-Ilan University, the Israeli institute of higher education affiliated with the national religious sector. He was reported to have been on the short-list of candidates for attorney general when Yehuda Weinstein was chosen, and is also said to be a future candidate for a seat on Israel’s Supreme Court.
It’s not easy to peg his political outlook – considering what might be awaiting him, he’s savvy enough not to readily say – but it’s clear that the recent pronouncements on non-Jews by rabbis, and the more recent developments, have left him deeply troubled.
“The idea that people are defined by religion or race when you talk about private property is unacceptable,” Stern tells The Report in a lengthy phone interview. “If we are a democracy, if we want to fulfill what we promised to do in the Declaration of Independence, it is very clear that we can’t look at people’s religion, color or race.”
And what about Druckman’s compromise wording that replaces “non- Jews” with “hostile elements?”
Stern replies, “It’s not up to rabbis or political leaders to make such judgments. If you think someone is hostile, go to the police and file a complaint. You cannot use your emotions in trying to determine whether someone is hostile. You have to prove it.”
To Stern, the issue of Israel as a Jewish state or a state for the Jews lies at the heart of the problem, although he, as a religious person, champions the idea of a Jewish state.
“The importance of Israel lies not just in securing the lives of Jews, but in securing a Jewish way of life that can be expressed in the public sphere, unlike in the Diaspora, where it’s expressed only within the family or Jewish community,” he explains. “But we cannot abuse this very legitimate need. Since we are close to 80 percent of the population here [inside Israel], we should feel secure that this will [continue to] be a Jewish state. Yet it’s a tenuous balance, and after just 60 years we still have to think it through.”
Yaron Ezrahi, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is just as troubled.
“I consider the statements of Eliyahu and the other rabbis a form of racism that hides behind religion,” he angrily tells The Report. “Charges of an Arab plan to buy land have nothing to do with religion. Their letters are based on a conspiracy theory. They as rabbis are responsible for religious services. Are they qualified to develop their own conspiracy ideology and on that basis seek to have an impact on public policy?”
Also using the analogy from the recent Carmel forest fire, Ezrahi, together with other intellectuals and public figures, wrote to Attorney General Weinstein asking him to suspend those of the rabbis receiving publicly financed salaries.
“Because of hesitation, negligence and a feeble response [by government officials]... the fire has jumped from one coal, from rabbi to rabbi, and threatens to consume the whole forest,” their letter said. Aside from the letter mentioned earlier in this article, there has been no word from Weinstein or his office on the matter.
“If I say to you in my living room that there’s a fire in a theater, it would mean nothing. But if I said this in a theater, and there was no fire, I’d be breaking the law,” Ezrahi tells The Report. “The rabbis’ defense, that they were quoting from Jewish sources, is wrong because they were ignoring the original context, as well as the behavioral impact their statements could have on people who follow their authority or are just looking for some fuel to light a fire.”
Ezrahi also believes the rabbis’ statements had a direct impact on the protests and attacks that followed, and has called on Prime Minister Netanyahu to take action immediately or resign.
“When the rabbis heard the silence of approval following the news of Eliyahu’s edict, they went ahead and published their letter, and what we’ve had from that point on is waves of hatred and even violence,” he says. “We haven’t seen evidence that anyone is taking the hatred seriously. What is even more amazing is the silence on the part of the attorney general. If there is a fire on the Carmel and you appeal to the authorities to do something about it, but they say only that they’re looking into the matter – it’s ridiculous!”