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April 19, 2014 | 19th Nisan 5774

39 Rabbis

Galilee Diary #522, December 29, 2010
Marc Rosenstein

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.
        -Exodus 23:9

When... the Lord your God delivers [the Canaanites] to you and you defeat them, you must doom them to destruction: grant them no terms and give them no quarter.
        -Exodus 23:9

The town of Safed is a popular tourist attraction. In the 16th century it was a hub of kabbalistic study, and for a brief period was a world center, giving rise to a new, activist strand of Jewish mysticism that had significant impact throughout the world. For various reasons this center declined economically and intellectually. In 1759 and 1837 it was destroyed by earthquakes. It became a poor "holy city," largely bypassed by modern development. In 1948 the population was about 90% Arab, but the Arab residents all fled in the war, leaving a lot of empty houses. These attracted artists, which led to Safed's development as a tourist center. However, the average visit is just a couple of hours - enough to see some of the quaint old synagogues, hear some stories, and shop. The city itself remains poor, with little industry, a growing ultra-Orthodox population, and a reputation for municipal corruption. One economic engine in town is the Safed Regional College, which grants BA degrees and various professional certificates. As with all of the regional colleges around the Galilee, many of the students are Arabs from the nearby villages, who don't want to travel to the big city universities, or don't get in. A few years ago the municipal rabbi of Safed made headlines when he spoke out against the growth of the Arab population of the town (mostly student renters). Rabbi Eliahu is not "ultra-Orthodox," but part of the mainstream "Zionist Orthodox" world - those who support the state and serve in the army. His pronouncements made headlines and drew denunciations, but Safed is in the periphery, so the affair faded from the headlines.

However, in the past few weeks, as backlash against Arabs moving into other cities - and against Sudanese and Eritrean refugees - has grown, Rabbi Eliahu's position has been taken over and issued as a halachic proclamation by 39 rabbis, mostly of similar backgrounds and positions; the declaration states that Jews are forbidden to sell or rent property to Arabs. This has created a firestorm of public debate, and my email box is overflowing every day with calls to sign petitions and pay for advertisements condemning, attacking, disavowing, calling for resignation, etc. Slowly, a number of other Orthodox rabbis have begun to get organized to disavow the statement, though some of the wording of the disavowals is still problematic (e.g., "it is only prohibited to sell to Arabs who are enemies of the state"). Here in Karmiel, the Ashkenazic chief rabbi signed the proclamation, and when questioned, said there was nothing to discuss, the halachah - and his position - were clear. His Sephardic counterpart refused to sign, explaining that such statements are against the law and rabbis have no business signing them.

So, are we a Jewish state according to Exodus 23 or according to Deuteronomy 7? This is, on the surface, still another example of Orthodox rabbis convincing the rest of us that they "don't get it." But the waves that they have made are merely an expression of powerful (and I think dangerous) currents running below the surface. And the struggle over the nature of this society and the vision of the Jewish state will continue, even after the media lose interest in this blip. Those of us who share a pluralistic, democratic vision must redouble our educational efforts. Petitions of condemnation are good for one's conscience, but I'm not sure how much they really change anything.

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