The saga over the deportation of migrant workers’ children questions what it means to be loyal to the Jewish state.
|Hundreds of Israeli rabbis have signed a religious edict forbidding Jews from renting or selling homes to Arabs [GETTY]|
Hundreds of Israeli rabbis have signed a religious edict forbidding Jews from renting or selling homes or land to Arabs and other non-Jews. The public letter instructs Jews to “ostracise” those who disobey the order, which is widely viewed as an attack on the country’s Palestinian citizens.
When the decree was announced on Tuesday, it had been signed by 50 rabbis, many of who are employed by the state of Israel as municipal religious leaders. Despite sharp public criticism, another 250 rabbis have added their names to the proclamation.
It is the latest battle in the ongoing religious campaign against non-Jews.
A similar edict was issued in the city of Safed less than two months ago, when over a dozen rabbis banded together to urge Jewish landlords not to rent apartments to Arab college students.|
African refugees – a group the state refers to as “infiltrators” – and migrant workers have also been targeted. This summer, 25 Tel Aviv rabbis signed a proclamation that forbids Jews from renting to “infiltrators”. Ten real estate agents who work in neighbourhoods that are home to large populations of African refugees answered the call, publicly stating that they would refuse such tenants and would not renew the leases of those who are currently residing there.
And in late November, the municipality of Bnei Brak – an ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv – began notifying migrant workers and African refugees that they will be evicted from their homes in the weeks to come.
But Tuesday’s proclamation, which was signed by rabbis from across the country, is the largest of its kind.
Israel’s litmus test
Small demonstrations were held in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, protesters were met by counter-protesters screaming “Leftie traitors!”
A number of rabbis spoke out against the edict, calling it a “distortion” of Jewish religious law. A prominent rabbi remarked that signatories must be stripped of their pens. After his comment, two rabbis removed their names from the letter. But others dug in their heels, announcing that they would collect an additional 500 signatures against renting or selling property to Arabs and other non-Jews.
The edict was condemned by many members of the government, including Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister. “How would we feel if we were told not to sell an apartment to Jews?” Netanyahu said at a Bible competition in Jerusalem. “We would protest and we protest now when it is said of our neighbours.”
Avishay Braverman, the minority affairs minister, called on the state to fire one of the rabbis involved. And the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), along with the Coalition against Racism, lodged a formal complaint with the justice ministry.
Einat Hurvitz, the director of IRAC’s legal department, explained: “There are laws against these kinds of statements and this kind of incitement and they haven’t been used against the rabbis.”
“The attorney general must take immediate action,” she said, adding: “If we don’t receive adequate answers, we’ll go to court.”
On Thursday, the attorney general issued a statement calling the rabbis’ edict “problematic” and “inappropriate for public officials”. It also said it would examine whether or not the rabbis’ actions were against the law.
Still, the attorney general did not launch a formal investigation. Nor did he sanction the rabbis.
“I expect the law enforcement authorities to do their part,” Hurvitz said, pointing out that the state’s response will be a litmus test of Israeli democracy.
Hurvitz added that the public outcry gave her hope that change was on the horizon. “There’s a saying in Hebrew that the worse it becomes the better it becomes,” she said.
Climate of racism
Abeer Baker, an attorney at Adalah, a local NGO that advocates for Israel’s Arab minority, felt that legal avenues would prove ineffective. “Usually the struggle is against the state, now it’s the private sector. You will find employers and renters with no will to help us now,” she remarked.
And because the rabbis are publicly sanctioning racism, “people [who refuse Arab tenants or employees] will not feel guilty”.
“In the past, people were afraid to say things like, ‘I don’t want to hire an Arab person’. They saw something immoral with it. Now the morals and values are deteriorating.”
Baker, who called the edit “very scary” and “very dangerous”, said “racism existed [before the decree]” and the proclamation is “an outcome of the general political climate of racism …. The struggle should be against the whole climate”.
Speaking of Israel’s Arab citizens, Baker added: “When you are under attack and people don’t like you, you might treat people the same way.”
The edict, she pointed out, gives permission to both sides to be racist. And that could escalate tensions.
‘What we’ve become’
Roi, a 27-year-old Israeli who asked to be identified by a pseudonym rather than be associated with Al Jazeera, said he doubted that the proclamation would lead to violence. Still, he called the move “terrible”.
“It’s racist,” he said. “But the thing that bothers me the most is that mainstream rabbis signed it, not just extremists. These are municipal rabbis. They’re employed by the state.”
He said the rabbis who signed the proclamation “don’t represent” him and are “giving Judaism a bad name”. He added that religious texts command Jews to care for non-Jews.
“Maybe [the decree is] something good because [Israelis] will understand what we’ve become,” he said.
Roi emphasised that his feelings do not mirror public sentiment. “I’m sure there are a lot of people who are saying that the rabbis are just doing what everyone thinks. No one wants to live with the Arabs.”
A recent poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, a non-partisan think tank, found that almost half of Jewish Israelis would prefer not to have an Arab neighbour.
Democracy under attack
Neve Gordon, the author of Israel’s Occupation, remarked: “The rabbis are just an expression of the sentiment.”
Some landlords have refused Arab tenants for years, Gordon added. “It’s not new. What’s new is the feeling that one can express this [without] shame … and when you lose shame you’ve reached an extremely dangerous situation.”
Gordon emphasised that this shift is not limited to the religious community.
“We shouldn’t understand this outburst as an island. It has to do with the loyalty oath and other legislation that is now in the Knesset,” Gordon said, referring to the controversial bill that would force non-Jews who seek citizenship to pledge allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state.
Human rights groups are concerned about scores of other bills, including one that would allow communities to turn potential residents away due to their ethnic, religious, or socioeconomic background, and another that would punish any citizen – Jewish or Arab – who participates in the global campaign to boycott Israeli products.
Gordon called such legislation “proto-fascist” and remarked that “the democratic elements of [Israel] are under intense attack”.