Israeli Arab protest - Yaron Kaminsky
Kafr Kana residents marching in memory of the October 2000 riots, Oct. 3, 2010. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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The Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial on Thursday decried a religious ruling signed by dozens of prominent Israeli rabbis forbidding Jews from renting homes to gentiles,  deeming it a "severe blow to the values of our lives as Jews and human beings in a democratic state."

"Past experiments have taught us just how important, and at the same time how fragile, these basic values are to coexistence and honoring the other," the memorial said in response to the ruling, which was seen as particularly aimed against Israel's large Arab minority.

"We know that the Jewish people, that knew suffering and persecution and experience ostracism and the revocation of basic rights, has expressed its stance on matters such as these with voices different than those we have heard today with this [ruling]".

The leading rabbi of Israel's non-Hasidic Orthodox sector, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, also denounced the religious ruling. "I've said for some time that there are rabbis who must have their pens taken away from them," Elyashiv remarked.

"It's interesting that these same Zionist rabbis support symbolically selling their land to gentiles during the shmita year," he added referring to the seven-year cycle when agricultural fields in Israel must lie fallow.

The heads of Israel's legal establishment have yet to express a public position on the matter. Neither Justice Minister Ya'akov Ne'eman nor Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has responded to a petition calling for legal action, and while aides have indicated that the matter will be dealt with, their stance on the matter remains unclear.

A group of public figures, intellectuals and academics have asked Weinstein to immediately suspend any public servants among the rabbis who signed the document, those "who trample underfoot the pledges of the Declaration of Independence on which Israel was founded, turn Judaism into racism and openly break the law prohibiting incitement to racism."

The group of signatories, which includes professors Yaron Ezrahi, Chaim Gans and Joseph Agassi, playwright Joshua Sobol and authors Sefi Rachlevsky and Yoram Kaniuk, approached Weinstein several weeks ago about taking action against Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu for issuing the same type of call.

"Because of dawdling, negligence and a feeble response to the breaking of the law, the fire has jumped from one coal, from rabbi to rabbi, and threatens to burn the whole forest," they wrote in their petition.

Haaretz asked Weinstein on Wednesday, through the Justice Ministry spokesman, whether he intended to adopt a stance on the rabbis' letter or launch a criminal investigation.

The spokesman said queries on the matter "have been conveyed to the relevant professionals and will be handled with appropriate urgency."

Sources in the Justice Ministry said that the issue might be dealt with but did not reveal the ministry's position.

The Civil Service Commission said that only chief rabbis are state employees and subject to the commission's rules, while municipal rabbis are subject to the religious councils.

The Chief Rabbinate is responsible for matters of Jewish law and professional issues pertaining to municipal rabbis. Theoretically, the two chief rabbis can summon a municipal rabbi for a disciplinary hearing if the attorney general concludes he has exceeded his authority or acted improperly. Such action has rarely been taken.

Oded Weiner, director general of the Chief Rabbinate, told Haaretz that the institution "does a great deal for interreligious dialogue, worldwide and with the Palestinian Authority." But Weiner added that "every rabbi in his city says what is in his heart."

Weiner said that in the past, chief rabbis handled such issues quietly with the individuals involved. "I have not seen the letter the municipal rabbis signed," he said. "When we receive a query from any quarter, I'm sure the chief rabbis and the Council of the Chief Rabbinate will consider the matter." Weiner said Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger would not take the issue to the council on his own initiative.