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The rabbis' racist letter: many words, little action

While public figures in Israel condemned the latest rabbinical Fatwa against renting homes to Arabs, little to no action was taken against its authors. Also, some secular Jewish communities are introducing their own version of the racist letter

Almost two weeks passed since dozens of Israeli rabbis – most of them civil servants, working for Israeli municipalities – signed a letter forbidding renting homes to Arabs. During this period, strong condemnations for the letter were heard from public figures, but little action was taken against the rabbis themselves.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke against the letter, and so did Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) and President Shimon Peres. Two very important Religious figures – the Ashkenazi leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef of Shas – condemned the letter. As a result, at least three of the signing rabbis withdrew their names from it.

Several Jewish research institutes, most of them left-leaning, published an ad on Haaretz against the letter. Many rabbis and 900 hundreds former Yeshiva students signed public letters opposing the racist nature of the rabbis’ ruling. The Israeli Bar Association issued a condemning statement.

These were positive developments that proved that there are still many Israelis that would stand up against racism and hate. We shouldn’t ignore their voice or downplay its importance.

Another encouraging sign was the response the Rabbis’ letter got from the American Jewish community. Some 500 rabbis signed a public petition – issued by the New Israel Fund – condemning the letter. This initiative got good media coverage in Israel, including a half-page article on yesterday’s Yedioth Ahronoth.

The problem is that so far, no concrete action was taken against the rabbis who signed the letter (with the exception of the Government Attorney that, under some public pressure, ordered his office to examine whether the rabbis violated a law forbidding racist incitement). With no official action, the nature of the letter remains in the sphere of the legitimate public debate – something that’s similar to discussing the pros and cons of rape.

When public officials announce that renting apartments to Arab citizens is forbidden – and that Jewish communities should outcast those renting homes to Arabs – action is the only solution. It’s not the time for political calculations. In such a moment, real leadership sends the Civil Guard to escort and protect the members of the minority under threat.

So far, Israeli leaders – including Labor party, which insists on staying in this government – fail this test.

The danger of inaction is clear: it makes racism a legitimate political choice (adopted by most of the Jewish public, according to a recent poll). Already, someone opened a hotline for Jews who want to report people who rent Apartments to Arabs (I encourage readers to jam it with made-up information; the number is 0522258183). Hundreds more rabbis have added their names to the letter, and there are even reports on a “soft” version of the letter – one which will enable more to sign it.

What’s even worse is that you could also hear voices in the center saying things along the lines of “I don’t support the letter, but…”. Such claim is made in a bizarre op-ed on Haaretz today by Ruth Gavizon, the former head of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel who turned into a neo-Zionist. While condemning the racist tones of the Rabbis’ letter, Gavizon frames it within “a legitimate debate” over the notion of separate communities:

It would be a mistake to have the public response take the form of indicting or firing the rabbis, separating religion and state or denying the legitimacy of the state’s Jewish character. Ranting and raving could prevent us from seeing the picture in all its complexity and from confronting the authority of the rabbis in this country, both as regards the content and “Jewish” morality of their positions and as regards the residential dwelling patterns of different communities here.

The controversy over desirable living patterns for Jews and Arabs and the use of the law to obtain them is not dictated by religion. Some advocate “color blindness” as the only normative approach to civil equality, on the assumption that this leads to greater integration. Some advocate complete segregation. And some, like me, prefer more diverse social arrangements that would provide different communities with various living options, based on their level of integration and inner cohesiveness.

Gavison is not alone. Just today, Haaretz reported that another Jewish community in the north is working on a charter that would forbid Arabs from joining it. The “separate communities” idea is the upper-class, secular, version of the rabbis’ letter.

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    1. […] Marathon runs into politics Dissolve The Palestinian Authority Israel never really wanted peace The rabbis’ racist letter: many words, little action The problem with Israel’s Jewish ‘refugee’ initiative In A Letter Send To Turkish […]

      Reply to Comment
    2. GRF

      As much as I applaud the outcry against the racist Rabbi’s letter is this not a bit like the Vichy police chief in “Casablanca” outraged to find gambling at Rick’s?

      Has not Israeli housing been nearly entirely segregated since day one? How much of the outrage against the Rabbis stem from their wishing to make de jure what has always been de facto?

      Reply to Comment
    3. They are rounding up the usual suspects right now.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Ben Israel

      Yes, GRF, Israel has a history of separate housing for different ethnic groups. Those who are most insistent on it are the Arabs. Any Arab who tried to sell property to Jews in an Arab village would be assaulted by his neighbors, in most places. The Palestinians and Jordanians have a death penalty on the books for anyone who sells land to Jews.
      Clan and religious identity is a major factor in this part of the world. That is why the Sunnis and Shi’ites are slaughtering each other in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, it also explains the bloody civil strife in Lebanon, also the split between FATAH and HAMAS (Gaza-West Bank).
      Welcome to the Middle East.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Mike Panzone

      Yes, Ben Israel, I’m finding you are right about this being a fact of life in the Middle East. It’s a bit of a shock to me that there are the number of Jews there in Israel who take part in this kind of discrimination. I guess it’s discrimination on my part as well to expect them, of all people, to know better.

      Reply to Comment