More on the Rabbis…
Jeremiah Haber, 14 & 16 December 2010
[see also Lawrence Davidson, Israeli Rabbis and the Issue of Real Estate in Tikkun]
Negative reactions to the rabbinic manifesto prohibiting the rental and sale of properties to Arabs continue to pour in. This post will discuss three that appeared in today’s Haaretz.
The first, and most significant, is the letter written by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva of the Har Etzion yeshiva, and one of the leading rabbis of the moderate wing of religious Zionism. The full text of the letter in Hebrew appears here, but its salient points appear in Haaretz English here
“There is no doubt the arguments in the letter are based on sources from the sages of blessed memory, and generations of halakhic tradition, but the document in general leaves one with the impression that it builds its conclusions on assumptions that reflect a particular, but not the only possible, halakhic approach.”
Lichtenstein highlights the commandment prohibiting housing to non-Jews or idol-worshipers in the Holy Land. He lists four examples of misinterpretation in the letter, and of the authors ignoring other opinions in the Gemara and halakha. He says the ruling that anyone selling an apartment to a Gentile must be ostracized “is completely false.”
“We should state the obvious: In the balance are key questions …. The readiness and ability to consider extensive factors linked to halakhic content and their connection to historic and social reality necessitate a wider discussion.”
Rav Aharon attacks the simplistic and tendentious interpretation of sources and wonders how it can be that orthodox rabbis were unable to see the negative consequences of publishing such a letter. While his position will not make a lot of my readers happy – he is, after all, an orthodox rabbinical authority with certain theological and ethical commitments – he does present a reasonable conservative position.
In the same Haaretz article we are told that another prominent orthodox rabbi, rosh yeshiva, and former member of Knesset, Haim Druckman, wants to reformulate the manifesto so as to distinguish between “good” and “bad” Arabs. A good Arab is one that is loyal to the Jewish character of the state; another is one who is not. Anybody with a brain in his head can see that there is no essential difference between his position and that of the original manifesto.
But the most disappointing response was contained in an advertisement sponsored by forty-two Jewish organizations that promote the study of Jewish religion in Israel, or are guided by it, such as the Shalom Hartman Institute, the Hebrew Union College, the Torah ve-Avodah movement, Rabbis for Human Rights, etc. With all its considerable merits, the counter-manifesto exemplifies the moral and political limitations of a Zionism that bases itself on a liberal interpretation of Judaism.
The counter-manifesto certainly begins well enough. Under the title, “No to Racism in the Name of Judaism,” it sees the rabbinic manifesto as part of a struggle against humanistic values, and the love of humanity. But here comes the money quote:
We, the heads of organizations and institutions that study and teach Torah believe with all our heart that the Torah of Israel [i.e., the Jewish people], and its development in the Land of Israel, must distinguish between friend and foe, between the aggressor and the resident stranger, of whom the Torah said: “The stranger who lives with you will be like the citizen (ezrah). And you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, I am the Lord.”
What is to be concluded from this passage if not that Arab native citizens of Israel are to be loved as “resident aliens”? What is the essential difference between these sentiments and that of Rav Haim Druckman mentioned above? True, he has a more expansive notion of what constitutes a “foe”, and he feels less the noblesse oblige of the liberal religious organizations. But the advert fails to mention the equal rights of all citizens qua citizens. And why doesn’t it? Because the minute you appeal to ancient sources to give your viewpoint authenticity, you leave behind modern notions of “rights”, “equality” “citizenship.” In their desire to show that Judaism and democracy are integrated with each other, the Jewish organizations have altered democracy beyond recognition.
I saw a copy of this statement circulating last week, and I noted my objections then. There already were more public objections to appealing to the concept of “loving the stranger” in reference to Palestinian natives (non-citizens are something else.) Whether these objections were noticed by the framers of the text of the advert I don’t know. But this much is certain: to consider a native population – made a minority by expulsion and ethnic cleansing – as “alien” is morally despicable. I am an orthodox Jew, but I don’t need to ground my moral convictions on a verse, especially if it is utterly inappropriate. At the very least, the advert should have taken notice of the problem, if only by implication.
It is statist Zionism that made the Arabs strangers in their own land. The problem is not with the texts of Judaism but in their simple-minded application to modern circumstances. I realize that adverts cost a lot of money, and manifestos are not the place for nuance. I also assume that some of the signatories were aware of the problem, gritted their teeth, and signed anyway.
But here in a nutshell we see the moral limitations of a Judaism informed by liberal statist Zionism. If Judaism and democracy can be integrated, it has not been by the framers of this advert. Were I a Palestinian Israeli, I would be deeply disappointed, though not surprised. In the same issue of Haaretz, conservative politician Moshe Arens holds the statements and actions of Israeli Arab politicians responsible for the negative Israeli Jewish attitudes towards Arabs.
Apparently, they don’t behave politely like the aliens they are.
Jeremiah Haber, 16 December 2010
Two more petitions against the rabbinical manifesto prohibiting the sale and rental of property to non-Jews, both originating from modern orthodox Jewish circles, have garnered hundreds (and soon thousands) of signatures. One originates from Israel; the other from America. Comparing the two is a worthwhile exercise in the difference between Jerusalem and Babylonia, or between Yavneh and the Upper West Side.
The first, here in Hebrew, begins with a strong protest against the rabbinical letter, “which employs expressions that appear to be taken from the vile language used by minority-haters in other times and places.
We, the undersigned, graduates of yeshivot and seminaries, and others committed to the Torah of God, wish to hereby express our shock and sharp protest to the aforementioned letter. This is not our way and this not our Torah.
We protest against turning the halakha into an instrument of advancing a racist ideology. We protest against the destruction of human dignity. We protest against the deliberate damaging of the delicate fabric of relationships between Jews and Arabs in our land. We protest against the irresponsibility shown towards Diaspora Jews.
The letter goes on to claim that the halakhic sentiments of the rabbinical manifesto expresses more their own ideology than the unequivocal voice of the tradition. Mention is made of more tolerant halakhic precedents from the middle ages and the modern period.
We desire a Torah whose ways are peace and comfort, a Torah of loving humans who were created in the Divine image. We desire a Torah that is not alien to the achievements of democracy and its values – the advancement of human rights, the obligation of the majority towards the minority….
We desire to strengthen the hands of rabbis who do not hesitate to speak out at this time with another voice, a voice that integrates the love of Torah with the love of mankind.
The letter is a fine one; my only criticism is that the headline of the petition is the verse from the Bible, “You know the soul of the strangers, since you were strangers in the Land of Egypt” The Palestinian Arab may be a stranger in the Land of Israel according to Jewish tradition, but he is a native of Palestine, and a native-born citizen of the state of Israel. If I can register that reservation next to my name, I will sign the petition, which as of this writing, had 1262 signatures. It speaks to me as an orthodox Jew, if not as a citizen of what purports to be a modern, democratic state.
The American rabbinical petition once cites a verse referring to non-Jews as strangers, although, to be fair, neither petition makes any Biblical verse part of the actual letter.
Do not pervert the rights of the stranger . . . and remember that you were once a slave in Egypt (Deuteronomy 24:17-18)
To our rabbinic colleagues in Israel,
We, rabbis serving in congregations and communities across the world, are turning to you for your assistance and leadership at a time of crisis. The recent halakhic ruling from community rabbis in Israel that forbids leasing apartments to non-Jews has caused great shock and pain in our communities. The attempt to root discriminatory policies based on religion or ethnicity in Torah is a painful distortion of our tradition. Am Yisrael knows the sting of discrimination, and we still bear the scars of hatred. When those who represent the official rabbinic leadership of the State of Israel express such positions, we are distressed by this Chillul HaShem, desecration of God’s name.
This degradation of the Torah threatens both Israel and our communities. We struggle to maintain a strong, loving relationship between Jews outside of Israel and the Jewish state. Every day, that challenge grows more difficult. Many of our congregants love Israel and want nothing more than the safety and security of the Jewish homeland, but for a growing number of Jews in America this relationship to Israel cannot be assumed.
Statements like these do great damage to our efforts to encourage people to love and support Israel. They communicate to our congregants that Israel does not share their values, and they promote feelings of alienation and distancing. Further, these attacks on the principles of our prophets, which form the basis of Israel’s law and society, provide justification for anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment across the world.
Many of you have raised your voices in the past, and have dedicated your lives to pursuing a just society in Israel. You have taught us that the discriminatory attitude expressed in that halakhic ruling does not reflect the belief of the majority of rabbis and Torah scholars or the people of Israel, and for that reason, we turn to you. For the sake of our people, our Torah, and Israel, we beseech you to take a strong public stand and oppose those who misrepresent our tradition.
בברכה, שבמהרה ציון במשפט תפדה
Note that the racism card is not played here, as in the Israeli petition (although that may be due, partly, to the poverty of the Hebrew language when it comes to words denoting bigotry; giz’anut (“racism”) covers a variety of sins.) Note, also, that the tone is one of turning to Israeli rabbis for guidance. And note, finally, that the bulk of the letter appeals to the negative consequences for support of Israel. The letter is less sharp and more deferential than its Israeli counterpart – as befitting the inferiority complex of many American Jews.
No matter – a big yasher koah to all the rabbis that signed it. And it is particularly gratifying that most of the rabbis are non-orthodox, representing all segments of the Jewish religious world.
On Tuesday, the 7th of December, some fifty Israeli rabbis issued a “decree” forbidding their Jewish fellow citizens from “renting or selling homes or land to Arabs and other non-Jews.” The “decree” was soon endorsed by an additional 250 Israeli rabbis. That makes about 300 in all, most of orthodox persuasion and many of great influence. Just to make sure that those who have property to rent or sell know what is at stake, the same rabbis announced that those Jews who fail to obey will be “ostracized.”
There has been some protest about this. Rabbis who do not agree with this command called it a “distortion of Jewish religious law.” Well maybe. All law is open to interpretation and the present debate, such as it is, is about whose interpretation is going to be dominant. Prime Minister Netanyahu has said he thinks Jewish law commands that one should treat the stranger with kindness, and wouldn’t Jews protest if no one would rent to them? But one gets a strong whiff of hypocrisy coming from the Prime Minister on this note. After all, is it not his government that is chasing all the non-Jewish neighbors out of East Jerusalem?
Therefore, it would seem that the orthodox rabbis who issued the no rent or sell order have the upper hand. Nor is this at all surprising. Consider the following:
1. There are real laws in Israel against the promotion of racism which are not being used in any vigorous way against these offending religious authorities. Some of them, for instance Rabbi Ovadia Yosef head of Shas, are apparently too politically powerful to be held accountable.
2. The Knesset itself is pushing a proposed law that would allow Israeli municipalities to reject residents rights to live within their jurisdiction based on religious affiliation.
3. 46% of Israeli Jews do not want to live near Arabs.
4. 52% of Jewish children go to religious schools where many of them are instructed by teachers who are in general agreement with the rabbis issuing the above “decree.” Those who go to public institutions are also taught to see Arabs as inferior and dangerous to themselves and the nation.
In other words, the sentiment expressed by this “decree” is not unusual. It is, in fact, uncomfortably mainstream. This sort of discrimination is a structural part of the Israeli public and private practice. All Israeli governments, from the founding of the state to the present moment, have purposely discriminated against non-Jews. Often to get a job, with the classic exception of unskilled labor, one must have prior military service and that automatically disqualifies the Palestinians. It is done that way in order to disqualify them. And, a good number of landlords already discriminate against non-Jews. The command of the rabbis is just an impolitic public pronouncement of the norm. As one Israeli citizen told Al-Jazeera, “I’m sure there are a lot of people who are saying that the rabbis are just doing what everyone thinks. No one wants to live with the Arabs.” This makes perfect sense in reference to a country that has held up, as one of its highest ideals, the goal of an ethno-religiously pure citizenry.
When one starts to analyze this situation one cannot help but see it as yet another example of the fact that, through our cultures and ideologies (including religion), we create detached subjective realities for ourselves. Within them the contradictions and ironies of objective reality just conveniently melt away. In this case we find:
1. Irony – The rabbis have forbidden Israeli Jews to rent or sell landed property to non-Jews, the bulk of whom, of course, are Palestinians. And where, pray tell, did the rabbis and their compatriots get this landed property? They forcefully took it from the very people to whom they are forbidding sale and lease. In other words, according to the rabbis, it is against their religion to rent or sell confiscated property to those from whom you have taken it.
2. Contradiction – This entire episode once more reduces Israel as a democracy to something akin to Alabama circa 1950. For Americans and Europeans to see it otherwise can only be because illusion (through the medium of propaganda) has replaced reality. Where you have a state sanctioned segregated society, a minority that is labeled inferior and unwanted, racially tainted education and, no less, the goal of ethno-religious purity sanctified by a national god, there is no room for any sort of democracy worth the name.
Finally, we can thank the rabbis for reminding us that Israel’s very questionable policies are not confined to its illegal treatment of those in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The 20% of the population within Israel proper, the Arab Israelis, are also under threat. This means if, by some miracle, Israel does go back behind the Green Line, the fight for human decency in that country will be far from over. One will still have to battle for the rights of over one million Israelis who are on the wrong side of the religious divide.
It has been the fate of establishment Judaism to be captured by Zionism, a deeply discriminatory political ideology. Now, with the rising power of those orthodox rabbis who would issue the above “decree” and espouse even worse as well, one must conclude that the secular Zionist ideologues and the religious fundamentalist fanatics have merged.
It goes without saying that the Palestinians in Israel, in refugee camps, and in exile must bear the brunt of this evolution. And they have done so from 1948 onward. Yet that is not the end of the story. Events have created another “fact on the ground.” And this is that there is now an unspoken connection between the salvation of the Palestinians and the “soul” of the Jewish religion. To all those Jews out there who have tried to ignore what is going on, remember the words of Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” If you value the future viability of your religion you must join in the effort to implement the rights of all the Palestinians. It is Israeli behavior that has made their fate one with yours.
Department of History
West Chester University
West Chester, P