by Lev Luis GrinbergThe Rabbis' Letter, calling on Israeli Jews not to sell or rent apartments to Arabs, is an attempt to replicate the conduct of the State of Israel in the Occupied Territories within its sovereign borders. It is clear to everyone that "there", unlike "here", segregation and discrimination are blatant. Nobody demands to allow Palestinians to live in Jewish settlements such as Beit El or Beitar Illit. Why should they be allowed to live in Safed or Nazareth Illit, then?
The secular Jews outraged by the letter are heartened by responses attributed to Rabbis Ovadia Yosef and Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, who have criticized the letter. These two authorities have emphasized the danger that this letter would encourage discrimination of Jews abroad. In other words, they have reminded us that we are to treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves. But this does not provide real comfort given the fact that within Israel proper, steps are constantly being taken to segregate Jews and Arabs, and the discrimination of the latter is far more widespread than we would have been willing to accept for Jews in other countries.
This Halachic ruling by the Yesha zealot rabbis is nothing but a more offensive version of the Admission Committees Law, adopted by the Knesset several weeks prior to the letter's publication. This law is the "democratic" version of discrimination, even though it does not state explicitly that Arabs may not be admitted to small communities. It is up to the local committees to do that - away from public scrutiny.
I fear that for most secular Jews in Israel, the basic issue with the Rabbis' Letter is not their call to exclude Arabs per se, but the fact that it is made in such an explicit manner, that undercuts Israel's image as a democracy. It is not the rights of Israel's Arab citizen's or of Jews overseas that concern them, but Israel's reputation.
The secular Jews are keen to conceal the fact that the State of Israel has in fact been implementing the rabbis' ruling ever since its establishment. The Jewish State is the largest admission committee set up to exclude Arabs: it seizes their property and prevents selling them lands, it restricts construction in existing Arab communities without planning any new ones, and maintains strict separation between Jews and Arabs. This is the raison d'être of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), the Law of Return and the Absentee Property Law. This is the rationale behind the admission committees in hundreds of rural communities on both sides of the Green Line.
The state's exclusion effort is twofold: restricting mixed communities and limiting the Arabs' housing land area. The most obvious example for that may be found in the Negev desert, with dozens of "unrecognized" Bedouin villages which are not connected to the country's electricity, water and transportation networks. On the other hand, the state encourages Jews to settle in huge isolated farms designed to prevent Bedouin "takeover".
Pushing the Arabs off their lands and refusing any construction and development plans for their communities are the main reasons for the current "problem" in midsize towns which do not have admission committees. Such towns are located near congested Arab towns and villages in the Galilee, Negev and North Jerusalem. This is precisely the loophole in the admission committee regime that the rabbis seek to close.
Like it or not, the fact is that the rabbis simply put into clear words the anti-democratic implications of the term "Jewish State". It is the privileges of Israel's Jewish citizens and the policy of progressively marginalizing the Arabs that are the source of racism. The rabbis are outspoken about it, the Knesset and government prefer a more subtle approach. In order for Israel to be a Jewish State in the moral sense, that is, do not unto Arabs what is hated by Jews, it must be democratic. Democracy is the institutional manifestation of the Jewish doctrine that we are all created in His image.
The present definition of Israel as a Jewish (and Democratic) State is anti-democratic, discriminatory, segregationist, and exclusionist. It subjugates us all to nationalist-religious fanaticism. Religious Zionism represents the undesirable linkage between religious and state in the Jewish State. Hopefully, this recent embarrassing incident will remain high on the Israeli agenda and promote political discussion of the relationships between religion and state and between Jews and Arabs - the two fundamental and issues of the State of Israel, which are closely intertwined.
Lev Luis Grinberg is professor of political sociology and the founding chair of the department of sociology and anthropology at Ben Gurion University. Author of Politics and Violence in Israel/Palestine (Routledge, 2010).