TEL AVIV // The wives of more than two dozen Israeli rabbis signed a letter this week urging Jewish girls to avoid marrying Arabs or even work alongside them, in the latest indication of a growing anti-Arab sentiment in the country.
The letter, which has caused uproar in Israel and was even publicly slammed by the Israeli defence minister, charged that Arab men used Jewish names to deceive unsuspecting Jewish women into dating them. It also cautioned those marrying Arabs that a life of "curses, beatings and humiliations" awaits them.
The warning has attracted wide media attention in Israel, especially because it followed a controversial religious ruling three weeks ago by dozens of state-appointed municipal rabbis that called on Jews not to sell or rent properties to non-Jews, and appeared to especially refer to the country's Arab minority. That edict attracted widespread condemnation from Israel's prime minister and president, human rights groups and more than 900 rabbis from the US, UK and other countries who distributed a petition against it.
"The letters … are part of a wave of racism threatening to sweep Israeli society into a dark and dangerous place," Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister and head of the Labor party, the only centrist member in the predominantly right-wing coalition government, said in a statement on Wednesday.
The document was the latest development in what appears to be increasing discrimination against Israeli Arabs, who account for a fifth of Israel's 7.7 million people.
A joint poll released this week by Jerusalem's Hebrew University and the Ramallah-based Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research showed that as much as 44 per cent of Israeli Jews supported the rabbis' religious ruling.
Last week, hundreds gathered at a demonstration in Bat Yam, a city just south of Tel Aviv, to protest against what they claimed was the growing trend of Arabs "defiling" Jewish girls across Israel. The crowd included schoolchildren donning T-shirts that said "Bat Yam is Jewish" and chanting "Arabs Out!"
On Tuesday, Israeli media reported that a principal at a school in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Jaffa had decided Arabic would no longer be spoken in classrooms among the students, despite the fact that half of them were Arabs. The Haaretz newspaper quoted some students as questioning why Arabic was banned but Russian was not.
Russian is spoken among students who had immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union.
The petition by the 27 rabbis' wives was initiated by an extremist right-wing Israeli group called Lehava, whose name means "flame" in Hebrew and which claims to "save daughters of Israel" from what it calls assimilation.
Lehava's campaign is influenced by the ideology of Rabbi Meir Kahane, a far-right Jew who was elected to Israel's parliament in 1984 before his party was banned as racist. The rabbi, an American émigré, had advocated the forcible expulsion of all Palestinians from within Israel and from the Palestinian territories that Israel occupied in the 1967 war.
Their letter said: "There are quite a few Arab workers who give themselves Hebrew names. Yusef turns into Yosef and Samir turns into Sami. They ask to be close to you, try to find favour with you and give you all the attention in the world. But their behaviour is only temporary. The moment you are in their hands, in their village, under their control, everything changes."
The letter's signatories included the wives and relatives of well-known rabbis. One was Nitzchia Yossef, the daughter-in-law of Rabbi Ovadia Yossef, the spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas political party, which is part of the Israeli governing coalition. Esther Lior, the wife of extreme right-wing rabbi Dov Lior, also signed the letter.
Anat Gopstein, the head of Lehava, said in a radio interview that "it's known that girls who go out with Arabs are beaten, these girls are in danger…there is a violent social trend and everyone is ignoring it".
The wives' initiative appeared aimed at taking advantage of the momentum established by the rabbis' property edict in early December. That manifesto had called on those who sell or rent properties to non-Jews to be ostracised by the larger community because such actions cause "the value of all the neighbouring flats" to drop and prompts a "big loss" for the Jews living in the area.
While the ruling angered Israelis from the left and right of the political spectrum, analysts had said that it reflected the growing fears of the country's Jewish population, particularly poorer Jews, that were being fanned by the increasing actions of the government and parliament targeting Arab citizens.
Israel has about 1.3 million Arab citizens - Palestinians or their descendents who remained in the country after the 1948 war that established Israel.