Beit Yehonatan
Beit Yehonatan, a Jewish building in the Arab neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem Photo by Tess Scheflan
Text size

A group of 18 prominent rabbis, including the chief rabbi of Safed, signed a call urging Jews to refrain from renting or selling apartments to non-Jews.

According to a report which first appeared on Channel 1 television, most of the signatories are from Safed, a city that has seen an increase in its Arab student population that is enrolled at the town's local college.

Safed chief rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, who has been criticized in the past for incendiary remarks against Arabs, is the most prominent figure to sign the letter.

Last week, Safed played host to an "emergency conference" which was held under the banner "Quiet War: Combating Assimilation in the Holy City of Safed". The event, which attracted 400 participants, was held at the Yigal Allon House, the municipal cultural center.

Haaretz has learned that the venue was reserved thanks to funding from the city's religious council. Far-right activist Baruch Marzel spoke at the event, as did a representative of the "Lahaba" organization, whose Hebrew acronym stands for "Prevention of Assimilation in the Holy Land."

Speakers at the conference expressed concern over plans to build a medical school in the city which they said would exacerbate the problem of "the Arab takeover of Safed."

The rabbis' letter, which was originally published months ago, urges Jewish owners of apartments to reconsider renting their properties to Arabs since it would deflate the value of their homes as well as those in the neighborhood.

"Their way of life is different than that of Jews," the letter stated. "Among [the gentiles] are those who are bitter and hateful toward us and who meddle into our lives to the point where they are a danger."

The rabbis also urge neighbors of anyone renting or selling property to Arabs to caution that person. After delivering the warning, the neighbor is then encouraged to issue notices to the general public and inform the community.

"The neighbors and acquaintances [of a Jew who sells or rents to an Arab] must distance themselves from the Jew, refrain from doing business with him, deny him the right to read from the Torah, and similarly [ostracize] him until he goes back on this harmful deed," the letter reads.

Letter prompted by rise in demand

There are currently 1,350 Arab students (out of a total student body of 2,200 ) matriculating at the Academic College in Safed. The increased demand for rented apartments prompted the rabbis to issue their call.

Mahmoud Abu Salah, the Arab representative of the Academic College Student Union, told Haaretz that his primary task is to aid Arab students in finding apartments to rent.

"The entire population in Safed listens to Rabbi Eliyahu, not just the religious public," he said. "Sometimes I present myself as 'Tomer.' That is the only way people will agree to rent out their apartments. In one instance, we managed to find an apartment for rent in the nearby moshav of Biriya. When the neighbors understood that Arabs were moving in, they threatened to set the apartment on fire. The situation has become intolerable. There are students who come here from the Negev, the Triangle, Haifa and Wadi Ara. They have nowhere to live. We will combat this ugly phenomenon."

Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu is the son of the late Mordechai Eliyahu, who once served as the chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel. Shmuel Eliyahu has been indicted in the past for incitement stemming from controversial remarks about Arabs. After a Palestinian suicide bomber killed nine people and wounded 50 on a bus at the Meron junction in northern Israel in August 2002, Eliyahu called on the Academic College to expel its Arab students.

"You can say the word 'racist' 20 times," Eliyahu once told an interviewer. "It doesn't have an effect on me. By the way, Jewish religious law prohibits the selling of apartments to Arabs and the renting of apartments to Arabs."

Officials in the State Prosecutor's Office told Haaretz: "We have yet to receive any complaint on the issue. If and when a complaint is received, the matter will be investigated."