Love Thy Neighbor

Following his halakhic ruling that prohibits renting to Arabs in Safed, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu offers his proposals for coexistence


The three Arab students observed the chief rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, with curiosity, as he entered the courtyard of their home and knocked on the door of the landlord, Eliyahu Tzvieli. Rabbi Eliyahu wanted to show the press that in spite of the prohibition he had imposed on renting apartments to Arabs, he is on good terms with his 89-year-old neighbor. Tzvieli was not at home, and the students invited the rabbi in.

A week earlier, everything seemed about to explode in Safed. Anonymous persons had hung posters outside Tzvieli's home, warning that "The fighter of 1948 is selling the city to Arabs." The same night, someone called the students' apartment and threatened to set it on fire. The three of them therefore asked that their names and photos not be published.

Their apartment consists of a room and a small entrance hall used as a dining area. Here the three students from Zarzir, Boyana and Kabul live, paying rent of NIS 2,100 a month. On the front doorpost there is a mezuzah that has become somewhat detached from the wooden frame. Rabbi Eliyahu reinforced it, explaining that this is a "Jewish apartment" and that Jews would be back to kiss the mezuzah.

The three young men, around 18 or 19 years old, study nursing - a profession Jews have rejected - at Safed College. Out of a class of 76, said the student from Zarzir, there are fewer than 10 Jews. The degree program lasts three years, and then he intends to enlist in the army as a tracker. The other two will return to their villages to begin working. There are hundreds of other Arab students like them who live in the city and fill the college classrooms. The rabbis of Safed want them to leave.

Shmuel Eliyahu- Yuval Tebol
Yuval Tebol

Inside the little apartment, a theologically and ideologically fascinating discussion developed. The young men said they felt insulted, but Rabbi Eliyahu did not mince words. In a quiet voice, he told them to leave not only Safed but the country, and go to one of the 22 Arab countries.

"They say the rabbi incites against us," began the young man from Zarzir, using the third person out of respect. "The rabbi visited the landlord and said we were causing a disturbance. I want to ask, is that true or not?"

Eliyahu said, "I personally have no problem with Arabs. But the moment Arabs and Jews live together, that's not good. Because relationships can develop naturally between you and Jewish girls."

The student from Zarzir replied, "We only come here to study. Someone said you offered Tzvieli 2,000 shekels in order to rent the apartment, and then you suggested he sell it. I was personally insulted. If the rabbi himself suggests that, it gives us a bad feeling."

Eliyahu: "I think that if the students respect us, and there are only a few, that wouldn't be so terrible. But because there are many, it changes the character of the city. My wife teaches here at a girls' college. She says that someone, and she doesn't know if it's you, either you or your friend, started up with one of the girls. Maybe it isn't you. She didn't have a good feeling."

Zarzir: "Not all the fingers on your hand are the same. If someone did something bad that doesn't mean all the Bedouin are bad. There are three of us living here. Nobody can complain about us in the slightest. We don't even play music. We're at the college all day. We don't bother anyone. I read that the rabbi says he doesn't want Arabs to be in Safed on Shabbat. On Thursday I go home. We have parents at home. The rabbi can solve the problem, so that there will be coexistence between the Arabs and the Jews and the Haredim. If you're a respectable man of religion, you speak and everyone listens. If you say, 'Let there be coexistence,' that's what will happen. If you want to, you can do it."

Eliyahu: "I think that coexistence is conditional on several things. First, that these students not be hostile to the state. It must be said - anyone who is hostile, let him study with [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah. Not at my expense. If the state helps you study, be grateful. You serve in the army. Second, the moment the character of the city changes, that's already not right. I'm not saying not to respect whoever is here. If someone is hostile, he should be thrown out. I'm not talking about individuals. In large numbers, let them live in the villages."

Zarzir: "I'm asking - do you want us to leave?"

Eliyahu: "If you continue to live here, you'll cause great harm to Tzvieli. He's an old man of 89 and now the public is very angry at him. It's not because you're not nice, but they're afraid that the character of the old city will change. My opinion as a rabbi is complex. The rabbi doesn't have only private considerations, he also considers the city."

Zarzir: "Will you throw us all out?"

Eliyahu: "Did I come to you with sticks?"

Zarzir: "That's an indirect way of getting us out of Safed. Is that coexistence? For us to leave? Take advantage of your status and say, I'm not a racist, I'm in favor of coexistence, I have next-door neighbors, Bedouin and Arabs, and I don't cause them problems, and I protect them."

Eliyahu: "Looking good is not everything in life. The rule in life is to do what is true. Not what looks good. The truth is that I think Safed should be Jewish. The Arabs and Muslims now have dozens of countries, 22 countries."

Zarzir: "Should we go to Saudi Arabia?"

Eliyahu: "If you live in the country that was given to the Jewish people, then behave like a guest. If you live like a guest and not an enemy, then stay, ahalan wa sahalan [Arabic for welcome]. In Judaism that's called ger toshav [a resident alien]. If you come here and say, I want to throw you out, or you want to change the character of the city, you have no place being here."

The rabbi and the students continued to converse, discussing Judaism's attitude toward Islam, until it was time for the afternoon Minha service. Eliyahu rose and shook the hands of two of the students. The young man from Kabul kept his distance.

Torah agenda

Since declaring his halakhic decision that forbids the rental of apartments to Arabs, Rabbi Eliyahu of Safed is once again in the spotlight, dictating a Torah agenda, as he likes to do from time to time. Eliyahu, who will celebrate his 54th birthday on the first day of Hanukkah, has been serving as the rabbi of Safed since 1989 and is a member of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate. Safed is a small city, but prestigious in the ultra-Orthodox world. It is considered a resort town for the Haredi community; Hasidic leaders and rabbis spend their vacations there. The chief rabbi controls the hekdesh [consecrated property] of the Sephardic community, which owns the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai in Meron, among other saintly tombs in the region.

Eliyahu is not considered a posek, an arbiter of halakha, or religious law, of the same rank as his late father, Mordechai Eliyahu, who was Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel. His main power lies in his demeanor: He is pleasant and friendly to anyone he encounters. During the first decade in his post he focused on establishing Torah study communities all over the country, and sent his children to live in them. On weekends, he often travels around the country to strengthen these groups.

He is very popular among young people, to whom he lectures often. They relate to his simple language, his up-to-date slang, and his tendency to call his interlocutors motek (sweetheart ) and ahi (bro ). His religious policy is not to give in: to stand up for one's opinions, be strict in observing the mitzvahs and refuse "unacceptable" military orders. He isn't afraid to express his opinions, to be interviewed, to condemn. He makes light of the demand to try him for incitement to racism. "A rabbi has a right to say what he thinks," he says.

Eliyahu's prohibition against renting apartments to Arabs is part of an organized ideology - not just concern for the communal values of Safed's ultra-Orthodox or the women of the city. His real fear is that the Arabs will feel like landlords, which he sees as a threat to the Jewish people. In his eyes, the Arabs were punished for their aggression in 1948 by being expelled from the mixed cities, including Safed. Turning back the wheel, in his opinion, will lead to the end of Zionism.

"There's a concept of national justice in the world, and a concept of private justice," he says. "In the private sense, it is forbidden to steal from a non-Jew. That is halakha. In the national sense, what is more just is that the Jewish people should have a country of their own. On that level we have to preserve the Jewish state. On the moral level, an aggressor must pay for his aggression. In Safed in 1948 Jews and Arabs lived together in peace, until the day the Arabs decided that they wanted to slaughter all the Jews of the city and take their wives, as they did in the 1929 riots in Safed and Hebron. When a person goes to war, the written or unwritten law says that by doing so he risks losing his home.

"When the Arabs who lived here in Safed tried to slaughter the city's Jews and didn't succeed, they understood the significance, took their possessions and left the city, leaving everything behind to the Jews who lived here. As opposed to other places, it was not a planned expulsion. It was an insight of those tens of thousands of people who lived here, that they had to leave the country and vacate the place for the Jews. The Arabs have 22 countries. That seems to me enough room to live, enough natural resources. The Jewish people also deserve a place to live. Experience over the past 2,000 years teaches that we have no reasonable existence as a nation among the nations of the world; either they expel us or they burn us or they try to convert us or we assimilate. If we want to remain a nation, the only place where we can survive normally is here. That's why we deserve a state, the State of Israel. An Arab who is willing to live as a guest of the Jewish state is definitely invited to live here. That's the halakhic concept of ger toshav. An Arab who feels like the landlord here - his place is not with us."

On the prohibition against selling to non-Jews, the rabbi often cites the Beit Yosef, a book of religious law by Rabbi Yosef Caro, the 16th-century author of the Shulkhan Arukh, the standard legal code of Judaism. But Caro speaks of a prohibition against selling, not renting.

"In a place where a neighborhood is being formed, [or] when there is fear that a neighborhood will be formed, it is forbidden even to rent to them," says Eliyahu. "The main reason for the prohibition against renting is 'Love thy neighbor as thyself.' A study by a university professor has recently been published, according to which the crime rate in the Arab sector is far higher than in the Jewish sector."

The Arabs claim that it's a result of neglect of their cities and villages, of a lack of investment in infrastructure and education, which are causing the youth to turn to crime.

"That's what the Arabs say. Let them say it. In the Arab sector there is legitimization for crime. When the Arabs take protection money from farmers in Yavneh, there's ideological justification for that. When they build illegally in the Negev they say 'It's my land, I'll do whatever I please.' When they drive at the speed they consider appropriate, that's in their ideology, that they do whatever they feel like. There's ideology here. It's not that one man builds an illegal house. Entire cities build illegal homes. I spoke to the editor of the Al-Sinara newspaper and he told me, 'I live here; you came; I don't feel obligated to this government.' He thinks that he's the landlord and we're the guests. That's why they call themselves Palestinians rather than Israeli Arabs."

If the state invests in them, maybe they'll feel they belong.

"The most militant group in the Arab public is the educated community. This is a community that feels the flag of nationalism has to be carried forward. I haven't seen the educated people pushing for peace; they talk about throwing us out."

How do you expect them to feel they belong to the country when you forbid renting apartments to them?

"I don't expect them to feel they belong. They're guests."

There was a feeling of quiet in Safed until the convention organized by the religious council [earlier this month], which called on residents not to rent apartments to Arabs. Afterward came the rioting. Wasn't the convention unnecessary, in hindsight?

"There's a great ferment among the public, especially among parents whose daughters were taken to Arab villages," says Eliyahu. "The behavior of the Arab guests in the city is not the behavior of guests. It's very aggressive, very belligerent, toward both Jews and Arabs. People are afraid to go into the street when it's dark. Girls are afraid to walk down the streets here. Since the Arabs came, people don't leave their doors open at night. It's impossible to ignore the fact that their lifestyle does not suit our lifestyle. Let them live in the villages with their lifestyle. The fact is that when you rent an apartment to Arabs in Safed, in Carmiel, in Jaffa, in Acre, all the Jews flee from there. That's an undeniable fact."

Maybe because people are racist and are unwilling to live next to Arabs?

"They don't hate Arabs, but it's unpleasant to live next to them. You can't ignore the fact that we're in conflict with the Arab world. In every shopping mall they check Arabs. All the security authorities say an Arab is a potential danger. The public understands that too and flees from the apartments. The person who rents to an Arab earns money, but he has caused harm to other people whose apartment has decreased in value. Where is the humanity, the considerate behavior, 'Love thy neighbor as thyself'? Love thy neighbor as thyself is first of all for your own people, not the Sudanese."

The hypocritical left

The Prosecutor's Office decided to try a boy who cried "Death to the Arabs." What is your opinion?

"I don't think it's proper. There shouldn't be death to the Arabs. They should live in their own places."

Is it a reason for a criminal complaint?

"I think the left is totally hypocritical. Every time a leftist talks, everyone shouts 'freedom of speech' until they're hoarse; when a rightist shouts, they say 'put him on trial.' It's disgusting. There used to be a desire to confront the claims of the leftists. Today you understand that they're coming from a hypocritical place. And that's a shame, it harms the public discourse."

To shout "Death to the Arabs" is not exactly discourse.

"I don't think it's necessary to call for a trial for someone who shouts 'Death to the Arabs.' I didn't see them trying those who shouted 'Death to the Jews' or 'Itbah al Yahud' that same night, or at demonstrations of [Islamic Movement leader] Ra'ad Salah. I didn't see them calling for trying those who shouted to Hezbollah to fire missiles."

Are the posters attacking Tzvieli the right thing to do?

"I don't think it was an insulting poster. I don't think there was anything negative about it. Expressing an opinion is allowed. Demonstrating next to his house is also allowed. People can tell him on the street and shout at him if they feel hurt. A person can express his opinion to his neighbor. If my neighbor has noisy parakeets, I'm allowed to say that it disturbs me, and if it disturbs me too much I'll scold him and protest aloud. If there's a neighbor who harms the social fabric, society makes sure to express its opinion respectfully, with consideration, not violently.

Maybe someone will be inspired by you and get up and do something to which you're opposed?

"In every public discourse there's a dilemma about how to express things in the best way. I don't think there's any greater risk in our words than in the demonstrations of the left against Jews who live in Jaffa or in Acre or in Shimon Hatzaddik [a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem]. I think that attacking Arabs is a serious mistake. Personally speaking, the head of our yeshiva taught us that stealing from Arabs is prohibited, and personally, harming an Arab is prohibited. When you make statements, you have to make sure the public won't be violent. Even if they threw a stone once, that doesn't mean that Mr. Tzvieli walks down the street with security guards. Nobody is harming him, even though he is a lone secular man in a Haredi neighborhood. Nobody has ever sprayed graffiti on his door."

On the other hand, there's a Jewish legend about Pinhas, who arose and took action. Someone could get up and say, "I'm Pinhas."

"It's written, be a student of Aaron and not of Pinhas. If we adopt the path of Pinhas we'll cause the destruction of the Temple. We don't educate people to be Pinhas."

At a certain point, the Rebbetzin Tova Eliyahu joins the discussion. She directs films together with a partner from Maalot, Sima Getz, who is also present. The women are even more militant than the rabbi. They hear the word "Arabs" and feel obliged to comment.

Tova Eliyahu: "Isn't the prohibition against marrying a non-Jew racist? How can we preserve our nationality? We're bleeding hearts compared to them. We don't slaughter them. We just don't want them living here. Let them take the college to Gush Halav. I'm opposed to having them live in any Jewish city, but here it's very critical, it's very much in evidence. There are 700 students here. Why do I have to solve their problems? Why are they accepted with affirmative action? What, am I not a citizen? Why am I worth less than they are? Why don't they pay taxes? Why don't they pay for electricity?

"I get everything from the state by the sweat of my brow. Not because I'm nice. I get high grades. I don't get any discount. What is the Judaization of the Galilee? How will we express that? Will any of us dare to go to their places and live there? Will we dare to rent apartments there and study in their villages?"

Sima Getz: "A Jewish family that went to live in Peki'in, they burned their house. If the Arabs were a quiet and confident nation that didn't sabotage the country, it would be different. In every way there are attempts to bring us down. Through insurance, by stealing cars, I don't want to say, they ... "

Rabbi Eliyahu: "Don't be afraid, say it."

Getz: "The whole business of the poverty line, Arab families that are registered as not having work - I haven't seen a single Arab in the village who doesn't have a business at home. They all live and make a living and are considered below the poverty line and receive unemployment [payments]. That's another one of the ways."

Rabbi Eliyahu: "And in addition to stealing land."

Tova Eliyahu: "And the fact that they build freely. I have a plot behind the house, half a ruin. When we built we didn't deviate by a millimeter. Now we want to enlarge the house a little. Do you know what houses they're building on our land? Why are they watching me from their balconies? We don't want to be in the position of being afraid of them. Let them be afraid of us."

Rabbi Eliyahu: "To change the balance of fear."

Tova Eliyahu: "And all the cries against us in the villages that are considered Israeli Arab, that's all right? We're not calling to kill anyone, heaven forfend. Let them sit in their village and we'll sit here, we'll travel in peace and live in peace, and there will be peace in Israel. They're heating up the atmosphere. Are there Arabs living in your building in Tel Aviv?"

I have no idea who lives in my building. In Tel Aviv it's not customary to say hello to the neighbors.

Tova Eliyahu: "We want to say hello to the neighbors. But I don't want the Arabs to say hello to our daughters. There are girls from the midrasha [women's seminary] whom Arabs start up with."

Sima Getz: "The rabbi is fighting so that Safed won't end up like Lod."

Battling for the army

Renting apartments is yesterday's news. It's a minor story, a battle for the image of a small city in the north. The next thing, according to Rabbi Eliyahu, is the battle over the army. With many soldiers who took part in Operation Cast Lead being summoned for questioning by the Military Police, religious Zionists are bitter over what they see as an unnecessary risk to troops, in favor of the welfare of Palestinians. The enemies this time are legal experts and human rights organizations, which they claim are "castrating" the Israel Defense Forces. The more extreme among them, like students of Rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburg of the settlement of Yitzhar have already made public calls for lying at interrogations.

Rabbi Eliyahu says, "The investigations of Operation Cast Lead are harming the soldiers. I have three sons, combat soldiers, and they are supposed to risk their lives to protect lives. I don't want there to be a situation, heaven forfend, in which they will be prevented from protecting themselves or a civilian population because of increased legalization. The problem today is not a light trigger finger, but the fact that there is no finger on the trigger. If today I have to live in Safed under 30,000 Hezbollah missiles and the people of Ashkelon have a similar number of missiles over their heads, that's not a light trigger finger. We need an investigative committee to find out why the army has become weak. The answer is that we have forgotten who the Jewish people are and what their role is."

What should a soldier do if he receives an order from his commander in the spirit of "purity of arms" and he thinks it endangers him unnecessarily. Should he obey?

"The order is patently illegal, with a string of black flags flying over it. The commander should stand trial. I educate children to go to the most elite brigade. That's what my children do. At a certain point there will be a crisis of confidence because of the Judge Advocate General, and out of a sense of responsibility I'll tell the students: Enlist in the chaplaincy or the Shekem [canteen]."

The JAG is religious. Doesn't he understand what you're saying? Didn't he study Torah? "The atmosphere that's taking over the country is an unhealthy one. We have to restore the gleam in the eyes of the army."

There are so many religious officers in the army, and according to you there still isn't any change. Can't the officers who were educated in a yeshiva bring about the change?

"They don't have the courage, they don't have a gleam in their eyes."

What do you tell a student of yours who is in the army?

"I say to strengthen the army, the spirit, to contribute to the spirit of Zionism, to remember where man comes from. To fight for Israel. Not to be weak. Of course the objective is for the army to have power of deterrence, not be an army that flees confrontations. Unfortunately, the failure of the Second Lebanon War stems from the fact that the army operated according to destructive legal codes that are represented by the JAG. My son served in the paratroopers and in the middle of the war in Lebanon they had no food, as was true of many other soldiers. They tried to organize food from the homes of the residents. An officer told him it's forbidden. My son said, should we all die of hunger here?

"There was a program by Haim Hecht on television, called 'Winning Twice.' It described the moral codes that endanger the lives of soldiers. My daughter-in-law saw it and contacted me in shock. She said, my husband is in Lebanon, my children are in Tel Aviv, does he have to endanger his life and ruin my life because of moral codes determined by people who have never seen weapons? Because of distorted codes? I told him, next time you won't report to reserve duty, like 60 percent of the nation. It's an individual story that is actually a national one. If this spirit continues, the day will come when one after another they'll say, "I'm not part of this story." And then what will the country be?

"In the Lebanon War we failed twice, morally and physically. If we continue in this spirit we'll fail again. And then what happened in 1929 in Safed will happen all over the country; they had no mercy on women and old people. Both here and in Hebron they slaughtered old people and raped children and roasted people on primus stoves. And the moment we lose, that's what will happen. I want to remind everyone about the lynching in Ramallah. The army must not be allowed to fail. And the spirit represented by the JAG will cause the army to be weak."

The previous round

In June 2008 an indictment served four months previously against Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu for incitement to racism was overturned. This was according to an arrangement reached by the rabbi with the Northern District Prosecutor’s Office, and with the consent of then-Attorney General Menahem Mazuz. According to the agreement, the rabbi published an announcement that “clarified” his words.

The indictment included three charges that attributed to the rabbi the crime of publicizing incitement to racism. The first charge was related to his statements in two different media outlets in 2002, in which he called for all Arab students to be kept out of Safed College. The media interviews were held after an attack on a bus in Meron, after which a female Arab student at the college was suspected of failing to warn about the attack. The second charge was related to an interview given by the rabbi in 2004, in which he was asked his opinion about flyers distributed at the time all over Safed, which said that “10 Jewish girls are being held captive by Arabs in the village of Akbara,” and are subject to humiliation and violence. Among other things, the rabbi made negative mention of the college in Safed as a place where “unacceptable” relationships can be formed, and claimed that the best solution is to build a college for Arab students, so that only Jewish students will study at Safed College.

The third charge was related to another interview with the rabbi in 2004, in which he called on people not to rent or sell apartments to Arabs, and said: “Say the word ‘racist’ 20 times, I’m not impressed by those words. Incidentally, it’s also a halakhic prohibition; it’s forbidden to sell an apartment to Arabs, it’s forbidden to rent an apartment to Arabs.”

According to the agreement that was reached, the rabbi explained that when he said “the place of the students is not in Safed College,” he was referring only to students who support terror. He said he respects every human being as a human being, Jews as well as Arabs, and that every person should be treated with respect.