...or, Public Officials in the Middle East Encourage Racist Policies
Take your pick. This is the news from Israel.
The call by a group of Israeli rabbis to ban Arabs from Jewish towns has topped the news in Israel for two days. Besides the obvious problems here, this shines a light on the troubling mixing of church and state in Israel: all the rabbis draw a government salary as municipal chief rabbis.
With 2,000 years of rabbinic rulings, it doesn't take much scholarship to cobble together a religious document like this that looks like an authentic expression of Judaism. The most senior independent Israeli rabbi, Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, issued a strong statement castigating the junior government-appointed clerics: "I have long said that some rabbis should have their pens confiscated!" Elyashiv has earned his moral clout by virtue of his scholarship, age (he's in his 90s) and independence (he's never taken state money). In the unofficial hierarchy of rabbinic leaders, he ranks as a super-authority.
Abraham Kook was opposed vehemently by the, native Jewish community of Jerusalem. This community is the spiritual ancestor of Rabbi Elyashiv.
In distancing himself from the municipal rabbis Elyashiv denounced the rulings of "Zionist rabbis." This is a loaded term. It reflects power struggles for choice government jobs in cities and state-endorsed religious courts in Israel. It also exposes an ideological divide between rabbis such as Kook who embraced Zionism as a religious movement, and the traditional camp which was deeply suspicious of the young rebels. Elyashiv's accusation that "Zionist rabbis" are the ones issuing the ban on renting Jewish homes to Arabs is an extension of his community's worldview, that, prior to the arrival of the Zionists, Jews and Arabs lived in harmony.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu also spoke out against the rabbis, quoting from the Bible's book of Leviticus. "Thou shalt love the stranger" and "one law shalt thou have for the native-born and the stranger." Netanyahu got this one right: Judaism has always acknowledged that Jews in Israel/Palestine share the same physical space as non-Jews. There is no period in Jewish history where that has not been a focus of Jewish religious culture. From the Torah, to the later books of the Bible; from the Apocrypha to the Mishna; from the Talmud to medieval scholars and beyond, Jews have always read the Jewish domain as overlapping with the non-Jewish.
However, Israeli law belies Netanyahu's statement. The State of Israel is constituted to protect Jewish privilege. The Basic Laws, building blocks of Israel's future constitution guarantee Jewish primacy in land use, citizenship and other privileges. State institutions such as the Jewish National Fund and the Israel Lands Administration control land use by excluding non-Jews from national projects.
The rabbis' ruling is a natural outgrowth of this political culture. Netanyahu has expelled Palestinians from their East Jerusalem homes, forcefully expropriated Arab lands, and funds and encourages Jewish settlements and the dismemberment of the West Bank...why, the rabbis can reason, is their ruling crossing the line?
Rabbi Elyashiv's followers live illegally on the West Bank in Israeli-sponsored towns such as Immanuel. Why is baring Palestinians from the Orthodox town of Bnei Berak worse than illegally settling in the Palestinian territories?
I'm glad Netanyahu and Elyashiv spoke out against the racist rabbis. But, if they want to quote the Biblical injunction that all - Jew and non-Jew - are equal before the law with integrity, they need to do their house cleaning first