Rabbi Wolpe - Chen Galili
Rabbi Wolpe, Rishon Letzion Photo by Chen Galili
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday harshly criticized the dozens of municipal rabbis who endorsed a religious ruling that prohibits renting homes to Gentiles.

Speaking at the National Bible Quiz for Adults finals, Netanyahu quoted biblical verses mandating love for the stranger and one law for all. "How would we respond if it were said not to sell an apartment to Jews? We would be infuriated." Netanyahu also said: "These things should not be said in a Jewish and democratic state that respects the morality and the tradition of Israel and the Bible. The State of Israel, therefore, categorically rejects these statements."

Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman (Labor ), who called on the attorney general to launch an investigation into incitement to racism, said of the rabbis in his written appeal: "They are being paid from the public coffers but defying all the rules that apply to civil servants. It is the obligation of the attorney general to launch criminal proceedings against the instigators."

Deputy Knesset speaker MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta'al ) said yesterday that the rabbis who signed the letter "should be given an urgent course in Jewish history." Tibi said Muslim clerics are being tried for less offensive statements but "the rabbis continue to go wild without fear that they will be put on trial."

MK Hanin Zoabi (Balad ) said the rabbis' position showed that racism was spreading through the establishment and that their ruling was the latest in a list of racist initiatives being promoted in the Knesset, among them the law that would enable communities to decide which new members to accept.

MK Talab al-Sana (United Arab List-Ta'al ) said the ruling was a desecration, a challenge to the rule of law and that it struck a blow against democracy. He said such rulings set fire to Israel's social fabric and undermined coexistence, their implications far worse than the fire that ravaged the Carmel Forest.

The Abraham Fund, a coexistence organization, said that the slow and hesitant responses of law enforcement authorities to complaints of incitement had prompted this group of rabbis to express their racist opinions against Israel's Arab minority.

The group said its request that the attorney general launch an investigation against Safed's chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliyahu, for incitement more than six weeks ago had so far gone unanswered. A lack of determined response by the authorities could lead to dangerous extremes in relations between Arabs and Jews, the group warned.

Among the dozens of signatories to the letter are at least two members of Tzohar, an organization of Orthodox rabbis usually considered to represent the moderate wing of religious Zionism - Shmuel David, the municipal rabbi of Afula, and Moshe Bigel, the rabbi of Meitar, a town near Be'er Sheva. David, a graduate of the Har Etzion Yeshiva, was a member of Meimad, a movement that has been represented in the Knesset and is considered center-left on the religious Zionist map.

The president of Tzohar, Rabbi Ya'akov Ariel, yesterday issued a response to the rabbis' letter, which interprets certain biblical injunctions as prohibiting the sale of land to non-Jews.

Ariel, who is also the municipal rabbi of Ramat Gan and regarded as a senior adjudicator of Jewish law, wrote that "there is no prohibition against selling homes to non-Jews. The chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog, of blessed memory, had ruled that [while a biblical injunction exists], in a democratic country there can be no discrimination among citizens. What's more, this will cause discrimination against Jews in other countries." Ariel added that "if there is a danger that Jews will be dispossessed from the land of Israel, the state must make special limitations."

The chairman of the board of Tzohar, Rabbi David Stav, told Haaretz: "Tzohar is an organization with hundreds of rabbis, with various ideas. The rabbinic basis of Tzohar is the desire to make the State of Israel more friendly and Judaism more friendly. Apparently, there are rabbis who believe they have had it up to here with this issue. Moreover, Rabbi Ariel's remarks are very clear. We thought so even before he issued his ruling and we are glad he issued it. I am sure his opinion is accepted by most of Tzohar's rabbis."

Stav said he disapproved of the letter and that it "caused terrible damage to the State of Israel and the land of Israel.".

Rabbi Bigel said: "I am the rabbi of Meitar. There are two or three Arab families in Meitar who bought a home here. It's legal, this is a democratic country. I imagine that if I were to take a poll of the residents of Meitar as to whether they would want this, the result would be closer to the letter I signed that what Stav said."