Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday harshly condemned a move by a number of leading rabbis who signed on a ruling to forbid renting and selling homes to Arabs.
"How would we feel if we were told not to sell an apartment to Jews?" asked Netanyahu. "We would protest, and we protest now when it is said of our neighbors."
Earlier on Tuesday, a number of top rabbis who signed on to a religious ruling to forbid renting homes to gentiles – a move particularly aimed against Arabs – defended their decision with the declaration that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews.
"Racism originated in the Torah," said Rabbi Yosef Scheinen, who heads the Ashdod Yeshiva. "The land of Israel is designated for the people of Israel. This is what the Holy One Blessed Be He intended and that is what the [sage] Rashi interpreted."
Speaking at the National Bible Contest for adults, Netanyahu emphasized that such declarations are not acceptable in Israel.
"Such things cannot be said, not about Jews and not about Arabs. They cannot be said in any democratic country, and especially not in a Jewish and democratic one. The state of Israel rejects these sayings."
Education Minister Gideon Saar also related to the rabbis' letter during his speech at the Bible contest on Tuesday evening, saying that the Torah commands one to have good relations with Gentiles.
Concurrently, dozens of people gathered in front of Independence Hall in Tel Aviv for a spontaneous demonstration against the rabbis' letter forbidding the sale or rental of properties to Arabs or other non-Jews.
A number of cultural figures were present at the demonstration, including Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz. Horowitz said, "These people receive a salary from the state and break the law. As a Jew and an Israeli, I am embarrassed that these men are municipal rabbis."
Horowitz continued, "There is no connection between what they preach, and Judaism. In the Declaration of Independence [of the State of Israel] it states that everyone has equal rights. We see a wave of fascism and racism that is trying to cut off sectors of Israeli society."
Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform Judaism movement in Israel, said, "The fire of racism will completely destroy Israeli society. If there is a lesson to be learned from what took place over the weekend, it is the danger of complacency. The rabbinical decree is abominable, and desecrates the seal of God that lies within every human being."
The director Ibtisam Mara'ana said, "Instead of lighting a Hanukkah candle, I would like to light a memorial candle and say Kaddish, the Prayer of the Dead, for the democratic state that we once had."
Mara'ana continued, "The rabbis took advantage of the state and usurped it for themselves. It is not only the state of the Jews. Today it is against Ibtisam the Arab, and tomorrow against Esther the lesbian, and next week against a woman with her hair exposed."
On Tuesday morning, it was revealed that dozens of Israel's municipal chief rabbis signed on to a ruling urging Jews to refrain from renting or selling apartments to non-Jews.
In their ruling, the rabbis called on the religious community to voice support Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, who could face trial for incitement against Arabs for initiating the move against renting to gentiles.
Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman has also asked Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman to begin the process of suspending Eliyahu immediately from his post as municipal rabbi.
Politicos from the national religious sector believe that the mass of prominent figures who signed on to the ruling – all of whose salaries are paid by public funds - will send a message to the attorney general to take Eliyahu's position seriously.
Upon news of the religious ruling, Meretz faction whip Ilan Ghilon immediately asked the attorney general to dismiss each of the rabbis who had signed their names.
"We are witnessing an epidemic of racism and xenophobia and we must act firmly," he said.
Deputy Knesset chairman MK Ahmed Tibi decried the letter as a "mass crime [committed] by a group of racist rabbis who should be given intensive course in Jewish history."
"The entire group should be tried for "incitement to racism," added Tibi, "Muslim clerics have recently been tried or fired from their jobs for much less but the rabbis are able to pursue their unruly behavior without concern.
Among the rabbis that signed the letter are the following: Yaakov Edelstein of Ramat Hasharon, Yosef Sheinin of Ashdod, David Wolpe of Rishon Letsion, Avraham Margalit of Carmiel, Simcha Hacohen of Rehovot, Yitzhak Yaakobovitch from Herzliya, and David Tsedakah from Pardes Hannah.
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