Racism, Rabbinical and Otherwise

by , December 20, 2010

As part of Israel’s orgy of racism and fascism since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed his far-Right coalition almost two years ago, dozens of Israeli racist rabbis (RR) have signed an edict forbidding Jews in “the Land of Israel” from selling or renting property to non-Jews (in other words: to Israeli Palestinians or Arabs). The RR base their decision primarily on the prominent medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides (1135-1204), who forbids selling houses and fields in the Land of Israel to “idolaters” (Mishne Torah, Hilkhot avodat kokhavim 10).

Did Maimonides, who lived and prospered in a tolerant Muslim world, consider Muslims idolaters? On the contrary. In one of his responses, he states, “The Ishmaelites [i.e., Muslims] are not idolaters at all.” Like almost everything in Jewish law, then, things are open to negotiation: Maimonides’ authority is negotiable, his interpretation of the Law is negotiable, and his own intention is negotiable too. The RR reflect their own racism rather than some indisputable, inherent Jewish racism. 

The Orthodox Fault

It was the Zionist Orthodox intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994) who urged the Israeli rabbinical establishment not only to emancipate itself from the state (the RR are all state employees!), but also to undertake a fundamental reform in order to adapt Judaism to the unprecedented reality of a modern Jewish state. The rabbinical establishment ignored Leibowitz’s call. Present-day Jewish Orthodoxy, especially the Zionist Orthodoxy, is therefore entangled in a whole network of ludicrous inconsistencies and contradictions, deriving from the fact that the Halakhah, the Jewish law, was conceived and developed in exile, when Jewish national independence – let alone a modern state – was at best a Messianic fantasy.

Jewish Orthodoxy has failed to cope with the fact that the Jews in Israel are no longer a minority but an sovereign majority. Many of the racist facets of Judaism are traceable to this unaccounted-for shift. A majority in a modern state has very different moral rights and duties than a small religious community in exile.

The leading Ultra-Orthodox Israeli rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv has poked fun at the Zionist RR by reminding that they are the ones who support the disputed circumvention of the biblical order to give the land a Sabbatical and to avoid cultivating it every seventh year. The controversial circumvention of this biblical order consists of selling the land to a non-Jew for the duration of the seventh year – in clear contradiction to the racist edict. The RR are not only racists – they are also hypocrites; their political commitment to chauvinistic racism is deeper than their religious integrity.

If the RR insist on treating Arabs in Israel as “idolaters,” why don’t they remind us of the rest of Maimonides’ words? In the same chapter, Maimonides forbids doing anything to actively save an idolater’s life: If an idolater is drowning, a Jew should not pull him out; if an idolater is dying, a Jew should not save his life; and a Jewish doctor should not even cure an idolatrous patient unless he is forced to.

On the other hand, in the same chapter Maimonides states that all these regulations apply only when Jews are in exile or when the idolaters are superior. What if the Jews have the upper hand? Then the Biblical command (Deuteronomy 7) should be followed in full: “When, however, Israel is in power over them, it is forbidden for us to allow an idolater among us. Even a temporary resident or a merchant who travels from place to place should not be allowed to pass through our land” – unless he accepts the Seven Laws of Noah, in which case he becomes a resident alien, a category that enjoys almost all the rights of a Jew. There can be little doubt that the Muslims obey the Seven Laws of Noah, and therefore…

The RR conceal all these considerations. They conceal the disputed validity of the racist regulations because they are adamant racists themselves. They conceal the worst racist regulations because they fear many of their followers would not go so far. At least not yet. At least not in public.

And they know their followers. Their urge not to rent or sell property to Arabs is supported by 55 percent of Israeli Jews, if a recent YNet poll (Hebrew) is to be trusted, including by a big minority of 41 percent of the non-religious Jews, and by 88 percent of Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews. I challenge the Alan Dershowitzes of this world to find another country, Western or otherwise, in which a majority objects to selling land to an ethnic minority of fellow-citizens. 

The Secular Zionist Fault

The most vociferous among the RR is Shmuel Eliyahu of Safed. Not coincidentally, it is in his hometown where Arab students are regularly harassed and intimidated, their property is vandalized, and Jews renting flats to them are terrorized.

In a Hebrew column, the racist rabbi smears almost everybody: the “leftists,” the “environmentalists,” the “Arabs,” the court, the state – they all conspire against the true word of God, on which he and his followers have a monopoly.

But one of the RR’s targets is worth special attention: there’s nothing illegal about forbidding land sales to Arabs, says Eliyahu, because the Jewish National Fund has been doing the same for decades, and under the state’s auspices.

Here the racist rabbi hits the nail on the head. Indeed, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) owns 13 percent of Israel’s lands and explicitly allots them to Jews only. The Fund was created long before the state of Israel, collecting money in order to purchase land for Jewish settlements in Palestine. It’s a major player in Zionist consciousness all over the world; in former decades, no Zionist classroom all over the Jewish world was free of its  famous Blue Box for donations. This colonialist institution has been kept alive even after the state of Israel was established. Again, a sovereign state has very different moral rights and duties than a pre-state colonialist movement. But Israel is holding the stick in both ends.

The JNF’s discriminatory policy has been in place for decades and is now under consideration by Israel’s Supreme Court. Even last year, however, Israel signed a massive land-swap with the JNF, in which the JNF gives the state lands in the populated center of Israel, and gets in return mostly uninhabited lands in the north and the south – so that it can stop Arabs from settling them. The state of Israel uses the JNF as a subcontractor in order to bypass the principle of equality and to discriminate against non-Jews in their access to free lands – or, more often, to lands already inhabited by Arabs that Israel is determined to expel.

The JNF is the major dispossessor of the Bedouins in Israel’s southern areas: it is planting trees on thousands of acres of land containing Bedouin villages, in order to ethnically cleanse the area of any non-Jewish presence. The JNF is also behind the destruction of al-Arakib, a Bedouin village which has been destroyed at least seven times in the past months by JNF bulldozers.

When President Shimon Peres, then, and other Zionist politicians condemn the RR, their condemnation should be taken with a huge grain of salt. It has always been the Israeli policy – left-wing and right-wing governments alike – not to sell or hire lands to Arabs, a complementary measure to the massive confiscation of Arab-owned lands. Orthodox Judaism has failed to accommodate to the Jewish majority status; Zionism has refused to come to terms with its pre-state colonialist roots, even within “smaller Israel” (let alone the Occupied Territories). The racist rabbis may be less eloquent than, say, Shimon Peres, but both Peres and the rabbis are part and parcel of a much deeper Israeli ethos of ethnic discrimination. In fact, the victims of Israel’s relentlessly discriminatory policy are by far more numerous than those of the shameful rabbinical edict.

Read more by Ran HaCohen