No Goyim Need Apply
On December 7—the sixth day of Hanukkah, 5761—50 Israeli rabbis, many of
them municipal employees, issued a statement declaring that renting or
selling homes to Arabs in Israel violates Jewish religious law (halakha).
Written in bombastic rabbinic Hebrew, the statement invoked the two most
authoritative halakhic codes of the Middle Ages—Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah
(1180) and Joseph Karo’s Shulhan Arukh (mid-16th
century)—to threaten violators with ostracism in business and religious
life. It also made the distinctly modern claim that real estate valuations
plummet when undesirables move into a neighborhood.
“letter of the rabbis” was designed to provoke, and so it did. In Israel,
the YNET news service and the dailies Haaretz and Jerusalem Post
seized on it, soliciting reaction from leading public figures, ordering snap
public opinion polls to test the public mood, and providing largely critical
story quickly went international, with wire reports in the AP, UPI and
Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and stories in New York’s Jewish Daily Forward
and Jewish Week. The BBC and the Guardian picked it up as
was not the first time that rabbinic figures in Israel had issued such a
pronouncement. Five years earlier, several ultra-Orthodox rabbis declared it
to be “our Torah opinion that it is forbidden to sell land or homes in the
Land of Israel to a goy, even if he is not an idol worshipper, or to an
Ishmaelite, even if one sustains a sizable loss or is experiencing a
financial burden.” But that pronouncement did not cause the public tumult
engendered by the Hanukkah letter, possibly because the authors were
“freelance” rabbis, lacking official status in their communities.
Hanukkah letter had a more recent precursor as well. Just weeks before,
Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, of the northern Galilee town of Safed, had drawn
criticism for issuing a ruling against the sale or lease of Jewish property
to Arabs in his own municipality.
son of a former chief rabbi of Israel, Eliyahu has for years been a strident
and politically active figure. Most notoriously, in the spring of 2009 he
worked with the Jerusalem office of the Union of Orthodox Jewish
Congregations of America (OU) to distribute a Passover “gift” to Israeli
soldiers—a pamphlet entitled “On Either Side of the Border.”
pamphlet purported to offer the confessions of a former Hezbollah terrorist
recently converted to Judaism. In it, the supposed convert claims that the
Vatican had arranged for Hezbollah emissaries to visit Poland so they might
look at Auschwitz and learn how to kill Jews. “Every real Arab, deep inside,
is kind of a fan of the Nazis,” he declares.
Reported first in the liberal Haaretz, the story of the pamphlet
caused enormous embarrassment to the New York-based OU, which often works in
tandem with conservative Catholic organizations on matters of social policy
(read: abortions & homosexuality). The OU was forced to apologize “to those
of other faiths who may have been embarrassed or offended by the publication
of this work.”
Notwithstanding Eliyahu’s earlier misadventures, the municipal rabbis
circled the wagons to provide their besieged colleague with cover. Often
carrying the title of “chief rabbi” of their town, these clerics have their
salaries paid for by the government. Strange as this may sound to American
ears, it is part of a long and complicated arrangement that goes back to
Ottoman times, when religious minorities were treated as autonomous
sub-communities (millets) and funded out of the state treasury.
After conquering Palestine in World War I, the British continued Ottoman
policy as the best way to keep Palestine’s hostile religious groups under
some kind of control. For example, in order to contain a burgeoning
Palestinian national movement, they created a fictive office entitled “Grand
Mufti of Jerusalem” and made a troublesome Palestinian irritant its holder.
the State of Israel was formed, the old Jewish, Muslim, and Christian
tribunals continued to be funded by a new Ministry of Religion, but with a
sizable advantage and freedom extended to the Jewish religious hierarchy.
Disbanded in 2004 due to internal domestic considerations, the ministry was
reconstituted in 2008 and is now led by a politician from the Shas religious
Among the Hanukkah letter’s signatories were “chief rabbis” from many
middle-sized cities in Israel and in the Occupied Territories (OT),
including Afula, Eilat, Ashdod, Ariel (OT), Beit El (OT), Dimona, Herzliya,
Holon, Yavneh, Jerusalem, Kfar Saba, Ma’aleh Edumim (OT), Nahariya, Kiryat
Arab-Hebron (OT), Rishon Le’Zion, Rehovot, and missile-pocked Sderot near
the Gaza Strip.
Unlike the ultra-Orthodox rabbis of 2005, many of these rabbis had strong
political affiliations with either the National Religious party composed
largely of Orthodox Jews of European background or Shas, the Morrocan-based
party belonging to the current ruling coalition.
Hardly had the letter hit the news than there was push-back from Israeli and
world Jewish leaders. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu criticized
it as “inconsistent with democratic values.” Even the reflexively pro-Israel
Anti-Defamation League issued a statement calling the letter “a perversion
of Jewish and democratic values” and chiding the rabbis for “promoting
blatant discrimination.” The Israeli attorney general’s office, responding
to a complaint filed by a secular parliamentarian, instructed Israeli police
to investigate the rabbinic ruling for possible criminal violations..
December 12, the New Israel Fund, an Israeli NGO, had rounded up the
signatures of over 1,000 mostly North American rabbis for a statement
condemning the letter—to which American newspapers and news sites paid more
attention than to the letter itself.
fact, the bulk of attention to the affair came from new media. Twitter was
awash with reporting, as were on-line zines and blogs. One of the most
forceful web presences covering the story was +972 (972mag.com), a recently
established Israeli web-based blogging magazine with a clear-throated
leftist editorial stance.
old media or new, “racism” was the term generally used to characterize the
letter. Not a few observers noted the parallel to the Nazi Nuremburg
legislation that banned the sale of property to Jews in Germany of the
Within short order, a number of the rabbis recanted their signatures,
particularly after a number of the country’s leading rabbinic figures either
repudiated the letter or publicly declined the opportunity to endorse it.
of this shunning was merely tactical. More senior and seasoned nationalist
rabbis soon produced a “softened” rabbinic letter that distanced itself from
the initial missive, yet reaffirmed the essence of the ban. It barred the
rental or sale of property not to goyyim (non-Jews) but to “enemies.”
the end, the rabbinic community was split on the language and tone of the
competing letters, and the matter subsided. None of the rabbis lost their
jobs, and no action was taken to review or curtail government funding of
municipal rabbis generally.
did the Orthodox push for segregating Jews and Arabs cease. On December 27,
27 Orthodox rabbis’ wives (rebbetzins), issued a letter calling on Jewish
women not to date, work with, or perform national service with gentile men
generally and Arabs in particular.
letter too did not come out of the blue. In the summer of 2010, an East
Jerusalem Arab was convicted by a Jerusalem district court of rape by
deception for having consensual sex with a Jewish woman on the pretense that
he was a Jew.
court is obliged to protect the public interest from sophisticated,
smooth-tongued criminals who can deceive innocent victims at an unbearable
price—the sanctity of their bodies and souls,” wrote the presiding district
Then, on December 20, the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam witnessed an angry
rally warning Israeli women against the predatory sexual intrigue of Arab
men. Mounted by an Orthodox women’s organization committed to fighting
intermarriage, the rally itself received significant media attention in
Israel, and was widely condemned by both journalists and politicians
(including the mayor of Bat Yam) as racist.
was the same organization that, a week later, organized the rebbetzins’
letter. Due to the already inflamed passions, it received somewhat wider
attention in the international media, but in the end had far less impact
than the Hanukkah letter.
season of the letters meant different things to different Israeli audiences.
For secular Jews (who still hold the majority) it was a puzzling bit of low
drama, either the harbinger of a racist theocracy waiting in the wings or a
welcome rabbinical imprimatur for segregating Jews from Arabs in the Jewish
most religious Jews, the letters simply announced to the non-religious world
the divine principles that should guide Jewish social and economic
intercourse with Arabs.
Israeli Arabs, it was yet another in a long list of Jewish proclamations
affirming Israeli apartheid, which in their reading has progressively become
the norm ever since the Oslo peace process unraveled in 2000.
most non-Orthodox American Jews, the letters seemed completely “un-Jewish.”
In that regard, they could only contribute to what Peter Beinart, in a
controversial article in the June 10, 2010 issue of the New York Review
of Books, described as the progressive alienation of Jewish Americans
from the Jewish state.