Thursday, December 9, 2010

News from the Middle East: State-Appointed Clerics Banish Religious Minorities from Cities

...or Government Employees Demand Citizens Not Rent Homes to Minorities.
...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.

Rabbi Elyashiv
Elyashiv brought to the fore a debate in the Israeli Orthodox community which is as old as Orthodoxy's engagement with political Zionism. When Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook arrived in Palestine from London, following the fall of the former Ottoman territory to the British in WWI, he quickly became rabbi to the young Jewish pioneers. This became his life work and he was rewarded with his appointment as the first chief rabbi of Palestine. The position of municipal chief rabbi can be traced to him. His brand of religious activism led his followers, and particularly his son, Zvi Yehuda Kook, to launch the settler movement in the late 60s.

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


  1. Susan JacksonDecember 10, 2010

    Michael, did you see this?
    5,000 Israelis in Tel Aviv marched against the rabbis' ruling:

  2. Richard WittyDecember 17, 2010

    Do you know of other Israeli Jewish clerics that are articulating a more humane thesis?

    Any orthodox?

  3. Richard,
    Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (head of the Modern Orthodox yeshiva of Alon Shvut on the West Bank) penned a scholarly rebuttal (in Hebrew). His main points are:
    1. the manifesto authors make no mention of more welcoming trends within the tradition
    2. There is a big difference between a theoretical debate and making public policy.
    3. Lichtenstein also points to the damage this manifesto done to the good name of Jewish tradition.

    Jerry Haber writes up about Lichtenstein (and others) here:

  4. Richard WittyDecember 19, 2010

    I'm seriously looking for names and writings of credible rabbis that pose alternative reasonings.

    I'm aware of the internationally reported rebuttals.

    Do they have other writings or public presentations with arguments that a Torah adherent would grapple with?

    I study with chabad rabbis in western Mass. My son is a rabbinic student in France, and we have sometimes challenging Torah discussions.

    I've not met a rabbi that advocated for harms to Palestinians, or anyone.

    They often describe Torah as a binding and permanent one-way promise/contract from God to give the land to the known Jewish people. (The 5/6 of the tribes that have disappeared, and 5/6 of those Jews that are secular, don't easily fit into the equation.)

    I counter that the shema prayers include the prayer "IF you keep my commandments ..... if not I you will swiftly perish from the good land I have given you."

    And, that the precedent of Abraham purchasing the burial site of the Caves of Machpelah, and not just taking them by virtue of the covenant, creates a precedent for consent of the prevailing community for property rights, not only divine decree that only one community/party can testify to, and only by 150 generations of oral "telephone" to guarantee.

    Appealing to religious authority affects what religious in Israel will do voluntarily.

    The religious very much rely on the guidance/instruction/dictation of their rabbis. They defer. So, the for the rabbis that even have an intuitive sense of what is right, they NEED Torah authority to make their arguments.

    Adjustments to halacha are discussed widely, particularly around Israel. It is new, and a fundamental transition that does not fit with expectations of what would happen at the ingathering.

  5. Richard, You make several points. Many rabbis in Israel have spoken out against the manifesto. Unfortunately, what I've read of these have just added fuel to the flames. Haim Druckman is a senior Modern Orthodox rabbi and an important leader in the West Bank settler movement. He offered that Halacha distinguishes between "good" and "bad" Arabs. Even the eminently more moderate Rav Aharon Lichteinstein could only oppose the manifesto firstly on grounds of the turmoil it wreaked in the Jewish community and finally, for the bad press that rabbis and the Orthodox community received. In between, he offers a rather restrained critique. The American rabbis' statement was similarly weak. Your first paragraph assumes several concept which I do not share. The "ingathering" is over. Because of the benighted mindset that has been given voice by official state rabbis, what Israel is facing is an exodus of educated, Westernized Jews. That Halacha is so prominent in Israeli politics is not a good thing. Halacha lacks the tools to speak to contemporary issues and people. The rental ban episode abundantly demonstrates that. I don't see what positive contribution Halacha has made, or can make, to this debate. Jewish tradition is valuable in inculcating a moral sensibility, not in dispensing rulings. I'd like to think that that's what Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein was getting at when he wrote that the scope for the Halachic debate is the study hall. Others should make public policy statements.