Migrant worker protest
Children of migrant workers protesting in Jerusalem, April 17, 2010. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi / BauBau
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The letter circulated by three rabbis in south Tel Aviv in which they direct residents not to rent their apartments to migrants and refugees trying to settle in the city makes a pretense of concern for the welfare of the residents and compassion for asylum seekers. But it hardly manages to conceal the blatant racism lurking between the lines.

The rabbis warn residents not to give access to their homes to "illegal workers," but it is clear that maintaining the rule of law is not their concern, inasmuch as they are not demanding similar treatment for Israeli citizens. As for the argument that the presence of the foreigners is causing a rise in crime and intermarriage, the rabbis are even taking the law into their own hands and bypassing city hall and the police.

The weaker population groups living in south Tel Aviv find themselves pressed to take in refugees, migrant workers and collaborators. This situation creates troubling friction that aggravates the residents' sense of unfair treatment and alienation. It's hard to ask the inhabitants of these deprived neighborhoods to take in the outcasts of the world with open arms without feeling threatened. In this complex reality, the role of religious and secular leaders is to try to bridge the gaps and find creative ways of living together.

The rabbis who signed the letter are not civil servants. However, the public is greatly influenced by their opinions. The Tel Aviv municipality has expended more than a little effort in taking care of migrant workers and could have used the rabbis' help in making contact with the migrants and their leaders and attempting to integrate the newcomers into the neighborhood in the ways that have been done in many other countries. The rabbis, however, prefer to exploit residents' fears and inflame emotions in the name of halakha, Jewish religious law.

Over the weekend, a courageous leader, Rabbi Yehuda Amital, who founded the Meimad political movement, passed away. His party carried the banner of tolerance, humanism and the search for peace in the name of religious faith, and though the members of his movement were always a minority, they provided an important alternative to ultra-Orthodox-nationalist radicalization.

In recent years, Rabbi Amital's students and followers have fallen silent, and the status of rabbis such as those who wrote the letter about the migrants has grown stronger. It can be hoped that the municipality will understand the damage they are doing and will publicly disassociate the city from their questionable activities and instead provide the option of an alternative, one of coexistence for all of the city's residents - both temporary and permanent - a coexistence free of fear and racism.