Israeli moderates outraged as rabbis target non-Jews

Over 40 prominent Israeli rabbis – some of them public servants – yesterday targeted the country's million-plus Arab minority with a religious edict warning their congregations not to rent property to non-Jews.

The letter, which provoked immediate protests from civil rights activists, left-wingers and Arab politicians, is the latest in a series of moves by elements of both the secular and religious Israeli right which have helped to inflame mounting inter-ethnic tensions over the last two years.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last night condemned the letter, which cites ancient Jewish sages who held that living with gentiles can lead to "sacrilege". Many of the signatories were publicly-funded municipal chief rabbis.

Although the letter's main purpose appears to be to exclude Arab Israeli citizens – of whom there are over one million – from Jewish-owned property, it could also be aimed at preventing the letting of accommodation to around 30,000 Africans – asylum-seekers as well as economic migrants – the government estimates have entered the country since 2006.

The move escalates a row which had already blown up over a similar edict issued by the chief rabbi in the ultra-orthodox-dominated northern Israeli town of Safed. The ruling led to posters and leaflets denouncing holocaust survivor Eli Tzavieli for letting a room to three Bedouin students. Defending the letter, to be published in synagogues and religious journals, one signatory, Yosef Shainin, chief rabbi of the southern port city of Ashdod, told Army Radio: "The Land of Israel is intended for the people of Israel." Another signatory, Chief Rabbi Mordechai Nagari from the Maale Adumim settlement, told Reuters: "If you allow Arabs into Jewish neighbourhoods, you are asking for feuds to ensue."

Mr Netanyahu said last night the state of Israel "totally rejects" the call made in the letter, which reportedly refers to property values as well as to sacred texts purporting to justify the edict.

Saying that it was opposed to the "fundamental and Jewish values which we hold dear", the Prime Minister added: "How would we feel as Jews if people were to make a similar call abroad in relation to Jews?" Among those denouncing the rabbis' move was Yona Yahav, the mayor of Haifa, the northern port city long known for relatively harmonious relations between Jewish residents and a substantial Arab population. "This is sacrilege," said Mr Yahav. "It spreads hatred and divisions among the people with whom we have decided to share our lives."

Before Mr Netanyahu's remarks last night, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (Acri) called on him to "condemn the incitement expressed by the rabbis and take disciplinary action against those employed by the state". Acri, along with Labour minorities minister Avishai Braverman, have already called for the removal or suspension of the Safed chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliyahu.

Rabbi David Rosen, the inter-faith adviser to Israel's chief rabbinate, described the rabbis' action as "disturbing", but said he did not think that the majority of the country's rabbis would agree.

Arab parliamentarian Ahmed Tibi, deputy chairman of the Knesset, said the signatories needed an "intensive course in Jewish history" and should all be tried for "incitement to racism".

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