Ask the Rabbis // How Should Jews Treat Their Arab Neighbors?

By | Feb 06, 2013


Although we need to take every precaution against fanatical Muslim Arab terrorism in and outside our homeland, we need to cease forcibly displacing peaceful Arabs like Bedouins, destroying their homes (even their mosques!) for the crime of not filling out forms. We were told that we were to apportion land to those living among us, whether Arab or Martian:

“And you shall divide up this land…also to the strangers who sojourn amongst you…and they shall be to you like native citizens amid the Children of Israel… says God” (Ezekiel, Chapter 47).

It is tragic enough that we cut down healthy olive trees tended by non-militant Palestinian farmers. It is far more tragic that we continue to impose a very un-Jewish, Occidental European model of government on a culture that is deeply tribal and Oriental, thereby alienating even those Arab populations within Israel proper who are not sworn enemies. To ignore what we are doing to the “good Arabs” while only focusing on what the “bad Arabs” are doing to us is immature.

Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Thousand Oaks, CA


It is convenient to denigrate another race, nation or people and assign an array of epithets to them to “justify” superiority, even ridding them of their existence. As whites, we did this with African-Americans to explain enslaving and lynching them. As westerners, we did this with the Japanese in World War II, and later the Viet Cong, to stir up fear about them.

As Jews, we ought to know better. We know far too well what it means to be on the receiving end of demonization. We, of all people, must resist treating Arabs similarly. We have obligations to them, no less than to anyone else, because of our shared humanity.

Humanistic Jews embrace a bi-fold orientation. We are part of a Jewish family, with inspiring teachings and a wonderful heritage, and part of the larger human family, which makes no distinctions between peoples. National boundaries, ethnic distinctions and religious differences set up divisions and barriers. They give way to an attitude of us vs. them. They also risk dehumanizing those who are other. Not only is it immoral and indecent, it also puts our own humanity in jeopardy.

Rabbi Peter Schweitzer
The City Congregation
for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY


The question is not about Israelis’ obligations to Arabs—that is clear. Under its Basic Laws, Israel is obliged to treat its citizens fairly—which it valiantly tries to do under extraordinary circumstances.

In the Torah, G-d commands us to treat strangers the same way we treat ourselves, to love our neighbors. In Torah, the intimate link between brothers is clear—between Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and even Moses and Pharaoh. Each is a unique covenantal relationship.

“No problem can be solved with the same consciousness that caused it,” said Albert Einstein. The problems between Arabs and Jews cannot be solved from the level of consciousness that has existed for centuries. Both must recognize their collective history and awaken to G-d’s promises as outlined by the prophets. Until people recognize, as Pogo did, that “we have met the enemy and he is us,” they will continue to exist at the level that bred the problem.

We await the day when our cousins, the children of Ishmael, welcome us to our ancient homeland so we can coexist in peace.

Rabbi David Zaslow
Rabbi, Havurat Shir Hadash
Ashland, OR

Rabbi Victor Gross
Co-rabbi of Pardes Levavot
Boulder, CO


Judaism’s key teaching is that all are created in God’s image. Everyone, not “everyone whose nationality includes no extremists.” Israel’s leading human rights group is, significantly, called B’Tselem, “in the image.”

Then there’s tshuvah, the stance of critical self-reflection before we examine others. We Jews have our own extremists, terrorists and demagogues; our side has fanned the flames, too. Even after discerning the few among “them” who are “enemies,” some obligations continue?we should constructively seek the end of their evil ways, not the end of them.

And what about “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18)? Arabs and Jews are by necessity neighbors and will be in any ethical scenario. By tradition (Torah and Quran alike) we’re more than neighbors, we’re kin?and though cousins fight, they’re still family.

I know imams who routinely preach and teach against extremism in their ranks; I must do the same. My least-proud-to-be-Jewish moment was witnessing hundreds of kippah-clad Jerusalem protesters chant, mavet l’Aravim (“death to Arabs”). But acts of reconciliation and coexistence, proud moments, abound, too. May we tip the scales toward coexistence, justice and peace for all who inhabit the Holy Land and this holy Earth.

Rabbi Fred Schindler Dodd
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist
Bethesda, MD


In the summer of 1980, at the age of 17, I decided to purchase a donkey for a hike from Jerusalem to the Galilee. Crossing Hebron Road to the Palestinian village of Abu-Tor, I bought the donkey from a Palestinian youth. We were both ready to break free from parental controls. Looking at the donkey, I imagined a grand excursion leading far from my neighborhood. Holding the cash, he envisioned a new boom box and dancing to forbidden disco music. For an instant, we even imagined a trip together, impressing young girls with our treasures. But we awoke to reality. I had to leave the village, while he kept away from the Jewish environs of Jerusalem. Fear of violence and years of anger supplanted our dreams.

I have learned since then?and taught?that the imperative of tolerating the “other” is most challenging not when the “other” is radically different, but precisely when we recognize our own suppressed and, at times, frightening selves in strangers. The sages recall that redemption comes only for “He who walks righteously, speaks uprightly, and who despises the gain of oppression…”(Isa. 33). For “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6). I do not know of any more fundamental imperative than this, especially as Israeli Jews consider the Palestinian “other.”

Rabbi Haim O. Rechnitzer
Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought
Hebrew Union College–JIR
Cincinnati, OH


The struggle for Israel to find a peaceful and safe existence has been the most important focus of world Jewry in the past 60 years. As a Conservative rabbi, I see Judaism as an evolving tradition wherein our ancient texts are read through the lenses of the highest moral teachings.

Judaism surely speaks to issues of conduct toward enemies, friends, neighbors and residents in our midst. We in the Diaspora must acknowledge that our Israeli brethren face a degree of danger in their daily lives that raises these moral and existential questions to a level not experienced outside of Israel.

When the Jewish nation finally resumed the status of a sovereign state in Israel, there was a 2,000-year-old gap between our Biblical texts that deal with this status and present-day reality. Those millennia of Diaspora and longing replaced literal readings of the text with a firmly established practice of using them for exercises in moral reasoning. This Jewish posture toward moral self-examination has preserved in us a reverence for life and a culture that retains a hopeful, responsible stance toward the future of our community and the larger world, no matter how trying and lasting the struggle.

Rabbi Julie Schonfield
Director of Rabbinic Development
The Rabbinic Assembly
New York, NY


A fundamental principle of Judaism is that every human being is created in the image of God. Our rabbis explain that we have the unique capacity to understand abstract ideas and to exercise free choice to perfect the world. This capacity makes us Godlike in the sense that we transcend the confines of material existence, moving beyond strict determinism with our conscious assertions of will. This remarkable innate potential rests within each soul, regardless of a person’s race, ethnicity or religious persuasion.

Based upon this key tenet, the Torah teaches that all humans deserve to be accorded a special measure of respect. It is in this spirit that we must approach negotiations with other nations. For Israel to present itself as somehow intrinsically superior to its Arab neighbors, by virtue of its Jewishness alone is theologically disingenuous as well as practically counterproductive. Individuals and communities, rather than being stereotyped either positively or negatively, should be judged only by the principles to which they subscribe and the actions that they take. In the final analysis, we each possess the same divine potential. Ideally, appreciation for the metaphysical spark in our fellow men and women of all backgrounds will inspire us to work together in peace and harmony for the betterment of the entire planet.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof
Magen David Sephardic Congregation
Rockville, MD

Modern Orthodox

Some traditional Jews (including the late Meir Kahane) point to Maimonides urging that Arabs be treated like the conquered Canaanites and repressed with a strong hand. I appeal to Maimonides’ view that even though it is legally permitted to hold slaves, the hallmark of a Jew is kindness.

Israeli Arabs’ equal rights are enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence and Basic Laws. Although in practice there is not full equality, Israel is working on this. Constant terrorism requires security actions that make life difficult for Palestinians. But there’s no choice. Israel has resisted giving in to legitimate anger and has acted better toward the Arabs than any other power in the world would have under these circumstances.

In Gaza, Israel has shown remarkable restraint. Although individual lapses have occurred, the IDF has minimized civilian casualties. Civilians were urged to move out before army attacks, but Hamas fighters embedded themselves amidst civilians. (Hamas also hoped for accidents where their people would be killed?to hand them propaganda “victories.”)

One factor in Israel’s ability to stay ethical is the constant review and criticism of its policies worldwide. However, rabbinic critique should be responsible. One-sided criticism is a sin; it constitutes collaboration with the shocking worldwide attempt to delegitimize Israel and justify its destruction.
We should validate firmness and self-defense combined with self-control while remaining open to peace and preserving the dignity of the other.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
New York, NY

I don’t believe in western morality, i.e. don’t kill civilians or children, don’t destroy holy sites, don’t fight during holiday seasons, don’t bomb cemeteries, don’t shoot until they shoot first because it is immoral.

The only way to fight a moral war is the Jewish way: Destroy their holy sites. Kill men, women and children (and cattle).

The first Israeli prime minister who declares that he will follow the Old Testament will finally bring peace to the Middle East. First, the Arabs will stop using children as shields. Second, they will stop taking hostages knowing that we will not be intimidated. Third, with their holy sites destroyed, they will stop believing that G-d is on their side. Result: no civilian casualties, no children in the line of fire, no false sense of righteousness, in fact, no war.

Zero tolerance for stone throwing, for rockets, for kidnapping will mean that the state has achieved sovereignty. Living by Torah values will make us a light unto the nations who suffer defeat because of a disastrous morality of human invention.

Rabbi Manis Friedman
Bais Chana Institute of Jewish Studies
St. Paul, MN

Chabad has issued a statement available on our blog.

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