The fight against racism in Israel

Blacks from anywhere, be it Africa or America, are viewed with suspicion and given special treatment by the Interior Ministry.

A YOUNG immigrant from Ethiopia waits upon his arrival at Ben-Gurion in 2012 (photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
A YOUNG immigrant from Ethiopia waits upon his arrival at Ben-Gurion in 2012
(photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
This week the government is releasing a report by the Government Unit for Coordinating the Struggle Against Racism that was established because of the discrimination against Ethiopian olim. The government is to be commended for undertaking to eliminate racism in the treatment of Jews from Ethiopia. It is unfortunate that it has taken all these years for us to wake up to the fact that such discrimination exists and has no place in Israeli society. But I wonder if this unit also plans to deal with other forms of racism that infect Israeli society? After all it is clear that racial discrimination exists here regarding other groups as well.
Those of us like myself who have had to deal with the Interior Ministry regarding converts have been keenly aware that blacks from anywhere, be it Africa or America, are viewed with suspicion and given special treatment by the ministry. We have seen it regarding communities of converts that are treated with severity that white converts never encounter. I have seen it time and time again with black converts from America as well. Even recently I became aware of a couple applying for aliya in the United States, where the black convert was asked to supply not only proof of conversion – which was performed by recognized Orthodox authorities – but also to provide proof of constant activity in the Jewish community. It took special efforts on the part of several prominent rabbis before this was deemed sufficient.
Furthermore, what is this commission doing with regard to racial discrimination here against Arabs and against non-Jews in general? What are we doing to educate people not to shout “Death to Arabs” at sporting events or to write it on homes? What about educating young people that we do not desecrate non-Jewish houses of worship? It is unfortunate that little if anything is done to combat the use, or rather the misuse, of Jewish sources in traditional literature that look upon others with disdain. Books such as Torat HaMelekh which teach such discrimination as a legitimate part of Jewish law receive the endorsement of prominent rabbinical authorities. What if anything is done in our schools, especially but not only in schools in the religious sector, to combat such ideas and to teach that all human beings, Jews and non-Jews, are created in the Divine image and that all human life is sacred?
The Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law recently undertook to deal with this problem by issuing a responsa on the status of non-Jews in Jewish law. The responsa makes the following points, among others:
Based on the Torah’s teaching that all humans are created in the Divine image and the fact that the experience of Egyptian bondage should teach us not to mistreat the stranger, the Torah’s legislation is sensitive to the needs of the non-Israelite. The basic ethical norms of the Torah apply to all, Israelites and non-Israelites. The non-Israelite who is a foreigner is distinguished from the Israelite only in very specific laws in which differentiations are made in any society between the rights of citizens and non-citizens. Under Torah law, non-Israelites are generally treated fairly and equitably. The non-Israelite who dwells in the Land of Israel is entitled to the basic rights of the Israelite and is singled out for special care.
Rabbinic writings upheld the Torah’s principle that all humans are created in the Divine image and that all stem from the same primal couple, so that racial inferiority or superiority do not exist. Nevertheless, often reflecting the feelings of oppression and even hatred of the conquering power, there are places where these writings display open hostility to Rome and to paganism and Gentiles in general, voicing varying approaches to the treatment of Gentiles. Whereas some authorities countenance favoritism toward Jews, others are strict in demanding justice for all. Many halachic decisions in the literature of that time seem to exclude Gentiles from inclusion in laws of the Torah based on a strict interpretation of words such as “your fellow,” “your brother,” which are taken to exclude non-Jews.
Rabbinic law reflects the realities of a later time when Jews suffered under foreign rule and the anti-Jewish decrees of the Romans. Therefore it includes a feeling of distrust of pagans as well as a desire to keep Jews away from pagan influence.
Nevertheless the Tannaim themselves in the first and second centuries CE ruled that non-Jews came under the rulings of morality that were found within the covenant of the Seven Noahide Commandments and decreed – in the name of such prominent authorities as Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Akiva – that mistreatment of the non-Jew was forbidden and even more serious than mistreatment of a Jew because of Hillul HaShem (desecration of God’s Name). Thus they decreed that the rules of civil law applied to all humans because of Hillul HaShem.
Akiva went further and claimed that some matters such as proper judgment and the prohibition of theft were actually based on verses of the Torah. The Tannaim further ruled that non-Jews were to benefit from tzedakah (charity) and gemilut hasadim (loving kindness) because of the principle of darkei shalom (the ways of peace). These rules applied even to pagans, that being the status of non-Jews at that time, with few exceptions.
This responsa, which has been issued in both English and Hebrew, further declares that:
Any rulings concerning matters of financial or civil law in the Mishna and Talmud that discriminate against Gentiles are not to be considered official Jewish law in our day; killing, stealing and other moral and ethical offenses prohibited by the Torah and Jewish law apply to both Jews and non-Jews. It is forbidden to murder, rob, cheat, deceive or otherwise harm a non-Jew; only those rulings regarding ritual differences between Jews and non-Jews remain in effect; it is a positive commandment – mitzvat asei – to treat a non-Jew lovingly and to perform acts of tzedaka and gmilut hasadim for Gentiles.
In its concluding recommendations, the Rabbinic Assembly Law committee made an impassioned plea, calling upon Jewish educators everywhere, including Israel, to convey these positive values in their teachings and to clarify these issues when teaching problematic texts in our literature. It is important that when discriminatory passages are studied by either youth or adults they not be left with the impression that these represent present day Judaism or are valid parts of current Jewish law. It is inconceivable that Israeli youth should graduate from high school without grappling with these issues that are so crucial in our society. If we are to have a war on racism, let it be all inclusive and not confined to one sector alone.
The writer, a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a current member of its law committee, was the author of the responsa referred to in this essay.