Democracy and Religion Clash in Israel…Again

By | Dec 09, 2010

By Niv Elis and Sophie Taylor

The latest clash of liberalism and religion in Israel accentuates the difficult dilemma of how a democracy deals with the illiberal extremes of its society.  It also shows that Israel’s democracy is still strong.

It all started in the holy city of Sefad.  The city’s chief rabbi called on local Jews to refrain from renting student houses to Arabs.  When an argument erupted between Arab college students and American Yeshiva students over the issue, shouts of “Death to Arabs” and “Death to Jews” quickly led to stone throwing. The police said the site looked like it underwent a pogrom.

The lessons of that outburtst seemed lost on a group of over fifty municipal rabbis from across Israel, who signed a petition on Tuesday condemning Jews renting to Arabs as blasphemous.  They even encouraged the neighbors of such Jews to isolate their sacrilegious neighbors. The rationale for all this?  The rabbis believe that intermixing non-Jews in Jewish neighborhoods could threaten the Jewish way of life and encourage inter-marriage.

Any country would be embarrassed at such a petition coming from prominent and supposedly learned representatives of their society, and struggle with how to react.  But the response in Israel has been admirable.

For starters, the backlash and condmenations from Israeli Arabs, concerned Jewish citizens and politicians alike was strong and immediate.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu condemned the rabbis’ statement, saying, “such things should not be said in a democratic country,” and that furthermore, the Torah asks us to “love the stranger.” President Shimon Peres saw the petition as creating a “moral crises,” emphasizing the rights of all citizens. He cited the Israeli Declaration of Independence, and called on citizens to “keep intact the true nature of the democratic, Jewish and egalitarian State of Israel.”

Outside the political sphere, condemnations were just as harsh.  Noah Flug, Chairman of the International Association of Holocaust Survivors, decried the rabbis’ statement, recalling that Nazis “wrote on benches that no Jews were allowed, and of course it was prohibited to sell or rent to Jews.”  The Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum also spoke out against the petition, calling it “a severe blow to the values of our lives as Jews.” Other Jewish citizens sharing in the outrage mounted a protest in front of the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem.

And, of course, Israeli Arabs expressed outrage and sadness at the petition.  Ramlah council member Dr. Mahmud Jeroshi worried that it will only deepen the animosity between Jewish and Arab citizens. Fellow council member Omar Siksik said the petition builds on everyday acts of racism, like Jewish vendors refusing to sell to Arabs, to give Arabs “the worst possible feeling, [of] losing all humanity.” Those who live in mixed cities are put into a particularly difficult situation, wondering where they are expected to live if Jews follow through with the rabbis’ requests.

Even among some religious Jews, the call not to rent found opposition, insufficient though it was.  Most rabbis remained quiet on the issue, but Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the top non-Hasidic Orthodox rabbi in Israel, denounced the ruling.  The leader of Petah Tikva hesder yeshiva Rabbi Yuval Sherlo also voiced his displeasure with the petition. “It is not right to ban renting out apartments to Arabs,” he said, emphasizing that “Jewish sovereignty cannot exist without caring for foreigners who live among us.”

But did any of the outrage, condemnation, and protest actually anything?  In fact, it did.  The attorney general’s office has begun a criminal investigation into the petition, noting that as employees of the state, its signatories can be penalized or fired for “inappropriate” conduct.  Rabbi Elyashiv’s arguments against the petition have already caused two signatories to withdraw their names from it, and more are sure to follow.  Not bad for the first 48 hours after the petition was released; the repercussions will surely continue to unfold in the coming days and weeks as well.

While the negative repercussions have by no means been halted, it is comforting to know that Israel is using the weapons of democracy–laws, public dialogue, and the force of liberal ideas–against its anti-democratic voices.  Indeed, these are the most powerful weapons a democracy has.

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