Netanyahu condemns comments such as that Jews should not rent to Gentiles and non-Jews were born to serve Jews.
Israel's right-wing rabbis pour forth 'hateful ideas'
NAZARETH // In a country that describes itself as a democracy, the words are jarring: Jews should not rent homes to "gentiles".
Yet that command is contained in a religious decree issued this week by at least 50 of Israel's leading rabbis, many of whom are employed by the state as municipal religious leaders. Jews should first warn, then "ostracise" fellow Jews who do not heed the directive, the decree said.
The edict is the latest in a wave of racist declarations from influential rabbis.
In October, Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Safed, sent out an edict along with 17 other rabbis in the city, telling Jewish residents not to sell or rent property to members of the country's Palestinian Arab minority, who make up a fifth of Israel's 7.3 million people. His followers turned words into deeds by attacking Arab students in the city and threatening to burn down the homes of Jewish landlords renting to the students.
Similar edicts have recently come from rabbis in Tel Aviv and nearby Bnei Brak, a suburb of 150,000 mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews. They have threatened to "expose" any Jews who rent to "foreigners", an apparent reference to Arabs, migrant workers and African refugees.
The latest declaration finally spurred Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to condemnation. Although his political base encompasses many of the rabbis behind these edicts, he said the rabbis' call was undemocratic and contradicted the Bible. His letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Reuters news agency, also alluded to the history of discrimination suffered by Jews themselves. "The land of Israel rejects these comments outright," Mr Netanyahu said.
However, while racism lurks on the extremist edges of most religious faiths, in Israel it is increasingly enjoying high-level sanction among the most influential sectors of the religious establishment.
The latest edict was signed by Shlomo Aviner, a spiritual leader of Israel's national-religious camp; Yosef Elyashiv, a senior ultra-Orthodox rabbi; and Avigdor Neventzal, the rabbi of Jerusalem's Old City.
Its sentiments have been echoed by Ovadia Yosef, a former chief rabbi of Israel and the spiritual leader of Shas, an important political and religious party in Mr Netanyahu's government.
"Selling to [non-Jews], even for a lot of money, is not allowed. We won't let them take control of us here," Mr Yosef said recently.
Two months ago, Mr Yosef explained the logic behind his views and those of like-minded rabbis.
"Goyim [non-Jews] were born only to serve us." Explaining why God allowed non-Jews long lives, he added: "Imagine that your donkey would die, you'd lose your income. [The donkey] is your servant. ... That's why he [the gentile] gets a long life, to work well for the Jew."
Mr Yosef's remarks against "gentiles" were greeted with respectful silence by Israeli officials and most of the media. It was left to the United States government and the New York-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to issue rebukes. Abraham Foxman, the ADL's head, accused the rabbi of advancing "hateful and divisive ideas".
The rabbis' use of theology to support racial discrimination has been applied to more than just housing.
This summer, Yosef Elitzur and Yitzhak Shapira, who head an influential seminary in the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, published The King's Torah, a 230-page guide to how Jews should treat non-Jews.
The two rabbis concluded that Jews were obligated to kill anyone who posed a danger, immediate or potential, to the Jewish people. They implied that all Palestinians were to be considered a threat.
Last month, Mr Shapira also backed the use of Palestinians as human shields, a war crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention and a practice that has been outlawed by Israel's Supreme Court.
Arik Ascherman, the head of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, said the growing extremism of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox religious establishment in Israel reflected the increasingly right-wing atmosphere in Israel that made the expression of ultra-nationalist views permissible.
In the current climate, moderate rabbis are reluctant to speak out against their colleagues, said Mr Ascherman. Many of these rabbis belong to the Conservative or Reform streams of Judaism, which are not officially recognised here.
"The religious sanction being given to the political right by these rabbis is dangerous. It makes their opinions seem more acceptable," he said.
Israeli prosecutors, meanwhile, have turned a blind eye to the refusal of several prominent endorsers of The King's Torah to obey a summons calling them for investigation. "Our holy Torah is not a subject for investigation or trial by flesh and blood," the rabbis said.
In all, these mostly Orthodox rabbis are growing increasingly bold in promoting their vision of a Jewish state run according to holy law, according to Zvi Barel, a commentator with the daily newspaper Haaretz.
"They and their supporters are transforming zealous fundamentalism and the shameful The King's Torah into the mainstream," Mr Barel wrote recently.
The general trend towards extremism has not happened by chance, said Sefi Rachelevsky, a prominent Israeli writer critical of the Orthodox rabbinate. Israel's public coffers pay the salaries of some of the most extremist rabbis, and the education system regularly falls under the political control of religious parties like Shas.
The rabbis exert their influence on the youngest and most impressionable too. When the new school year started in September, 52 per cent of Jewish children in first grade attended a strictly religious school.
Pupils in some of the most religious schools, Mr Rachlevsky pointed out, were taught that Jews sit above nature, which comprises four categories: "inanimate", "vegetable", "animal" and "speakers", or non-Jews, who are considered no more than talking animals.