Borderline Views: Racism in the name of religion

The call of Safed chief rabbi on city’s Jewish citizens not to rent or sell their apartments to Arabs is as far removed from Jewish values as one can imagine.

Crusader castle (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Crusader castle
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Imagine you are living in New York or London. The local imam or Catholic priest puts out a public statement to the effect that people should not rent their houses to anyone who is noticeably Jewish.
They look different, he says, some of them dress in strange garments and they bring the general property values down.
No, the religious leader says, I have nothing against Jews in principle, but they should stick to their own areas, not infiltrate into good Christian or Muslim neighborhoods. Anyone in the community who rents or sells to a member of the Jewish faith will no longer be welcome for prayers.
There is a simple word to describe such a statement – racism. It is the sort of practice which in any true democracy would immediately be condemned.
And, if it was practiced against Jews, the many Jewish protection agencies, be it the ADL in the US or the Community Security Trust in the UK, would immediately request that criminal charges be brought against the perpetrators.
IT IS precisely this form of blatant racism which was practiced last week by the chief rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliahu, and some of his rabbinical colleagues.
They issued a statement telling residents not to rent or sell apartments to Arabs, especially not to the students who come to Safed to study at the regional college.
Anyone renting an apartment to an Arab should not, in the words of Eliahu, be made welcome in his local synagogue, and should definitely not be called up to the Torah. For a secular Jew, this may not seem significant, but for a religious citizen, for whom his synagogue and community are central to his social acceptance, this is as harsh a punishment as one could imagine; it is akin to social ostracism.
No response was heard from the government, while both the (secular) mayor of the city and the (religious) president of the Safed college refused to condemn the statements, other than to say that they would not have said such things. Their lack of public condemnation made them accomplices. No excuses, or claims that Arab students change the nature of the city and its Jewish spirituality, especially on Shabbat, or that they smoke nargilas in areas where this was not the custom, could disguise the blatant racism.
Nor is this the first time. In recent years, some of the more extreme elements in the world of religious Zionism and the extreme Right have issued similar statements concerning residential areas in mixed Jewish-Arab cities such as Lod, Ramle, Jaffa, Acre and Nazareth. Each time it happens, the police or the attorney-general begin an inquiry which results in nothing, while the religious world – even those who would not necessarily make or agree with such statements – is enraged that its rabbis should be questioned for their “religious” teachings. Religion, they will argue, is not subject to the rules of democracy.
FOR MANY of us who grew up in the world of religious Zionism, for whom the struggle to combine statehood and modernity with the daily practices of a religious lifestyle were central to the way in which we view the world, it is this hijacking of religion in the name of xenophobia and – yes, I’ll use that word again – racism which has pushed so many of us away. It is an embarrassment that people, under the guise of religious leadership, relate in such a way to another group, in a manner which is as far removed from Jewish teachings as one can imagine.
Yes, I can hear the arguments. Jews in North America and the UK are not an enemies of the state.
They don’t threaten the safety and lives of the average citizen, while here in Israel, Arabs constitute a fifth column and would like the Jewish state to disappear.
Why should we behave as friends and neighbors, as democratic equals, if they threaten our very existence? But it is precisely this form of Jewish racism which pushes the vast majority of normal Arab citizens – those wishing to progress in life, obtain a profession and gainful employment – into the camp of the “enemy.”
As they realize that no action will be taken against those who make such statements, as they understand that the notion of a “Jewish and democratic” state is good only for the Jews, why indeed should they remain upright citizens? A country which insists on a loyalty oath for only some of its citizens, those who do not belong to the ethnic or national majority, is a country which quickly slips down the road to racism.
We will continue to cry that we are not an apartheid state, that we do not practice discrimination, that we are the “only” true democracy in the Middle East. But as long as we allow the racist comments of Eliahu and others like him to go unanswered, we are betraying the tenets on which this state was established.
As a “light unto the nations,” we should be showing the world how ethnic groups can live side by side, especially where political and national tensions exist.
By following the policies that the state, with its loyalty oath, and religious leaders, with their calls to close the housing market to Arabs, are advocating, we are proving to the world that we are unable to be a Jewish and democratic state. And even worse, we are proving that the Jewish state does not practice Jewish values or demonstrate Jewish morality. It is a betrayal of what the State of Israel is all about, and puts us into the same category as all those states that, throughout history, persecuted and excluded Jews. It is reverse anti-Semitism, no less.
The writer is professor of Political Geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of The International Journal of Geopolitics.