Spring 2011, Vol. 13, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics blog

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
The Month of the Condom

Political Islamophobia

Our Christian Nation

Sharia Isn't OK

The Religion Gap Abides

Not a Witch but a What?

The Fall of Eddie Long

No Goyim Need Apply

The Golb Affair

Praying for Christopher Hitchens



No Goyim Need Apply
by Ronald Kiener

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.

The “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 analysis.

The 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 well.

This 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.

The 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.

The 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.”

The 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.

When 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 party.

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..

By 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.

In 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 (, a recently established Israeli web-based blogging magazine with a clear-throated leftist editorial stance.

But 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 1930s.

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.

Some 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.”

In 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. 

Nor 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.

This 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.

“The 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 judge.

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.

It 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.

This 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 state.

For 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.

For 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.

To 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.


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