On Rabbis and Racism

According to signator Rabbi Yosef Scheinen (left), head of the Ashdod Yeshiva: "Racism originated in the Torah"

From Ha’aretz:

A number of leading rabbis who signed on to a religious ruling to forbid renting homes to gentiles – a move particularly aimed against Arabs – defended their decision on Tuesday with the declaration that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews.

Dozens of Israel’s municipal chief rabbis signed on to the ruling, which comes just months after the chief rabbi of Safed initiated a call urging Jews to refrain from renting or selling apartments to non-Jews.

Needless to say, the reaction to this noxious ruling has been nothing short of thunderous throughout Israel and the Jewish world. Israeli politicians from Netanyahu on down have publicly called out the rabbis on their racism. The New Israel Fund is disseminating “Rabbis Against Religious Discrimination” a statement that calls upon Israeli rabbis to “take a strong public stand” against “this painful distortion of our tradition.”  At last count, 880 rabbis from around the world have signed on. Even the ADL has joined the fray in denouncing the ruling.

It’s been heartening to hear such an immediate and powerful Jewish communal response. Still, for all of the brouhaha, I’m struck – and fairly troubled – that there has been very little discussion of the fact that these rabbis are on the government payroll at all.

Indeed, it’s very easy to criticize rabbis such as this, but in truth, the mere existence of racist rabbis in Israel shouldn’t come as much of a shock to us. Truth be told, prominent Israeli rabbis have been disseminating xenophobia for some time now. Every religion has its religious extremist “spokespeople” – and Judaism is certainly no different on this score.

No, the real problem here is not the horrid personal beliefs of a handful of individual rabbis – the core issue is a political system that sees no problem in granting state authority to them – or to any clergy, for that matter. For me, this is the most disturbing aspect of this whole sorry episode: at the end of the day, these rabbis are ultimately part of a larger infrastructure of intolerance that inevitably results from wedding religion to nation-statism.

I was very happy to read that some left-wing Israeli politicians have gone as far as to call for the firing of the rabbis in question, but in the end, I’m just not convinced that this problem ultimately stems a few “rogue employees.” The real problem, I fear, has to do with a nation that claims to be both Jewish and democratic – but is finding it increasingly difficult to square that circle.

6 thoughts on “On Rabbis and Racism

  1. Mark Braverman

    Courageous and spot on, as usual, Brant. It’s so easy for the ADL and other Jewish advocacy groups to jump on this. These Rabbis are convenient straw men for proponents of the idea that if only we could remove these “bad apples” (this is like the argument that we just need to “end the occupation), Israel could go on to be a democratic state. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, former Chief Rabbi of Israel and the de facto spiritual leader of the Shas party is the poster child for those who bemoan Israel’s threatened descent into fascism. In trotting out the specter of obscene figures like Yosef, we are are indulging in a profoundly dangerous form of denial. Yosef is not an aberration, a blemish on the clear complexion of a democratic, pluralistic Israel. Shas is not an unfortunate by-product of democracy, but a core feature of Israel as an ethnic nationalist project, firmly entrenched in the political structure and governance of Israel itself. The participation of Jewish fundamentalist political parties was a feature of Israel’s political structure that was put in place at the very founding of the state. Yes, Israel has democratic and liberal strivings, very much in line with the prophetic tradition of Judaism and with the liberal humanism that characterizes Jewish culture. But this is not that value set that is steering the ship of Israel – it is, rather, political Zionism. In its fundamental aims and structure Israel does not and cannot express the democratic and egalitarian values to which (some of) its founders and many of its citizens and defenders aspire.

    Could such a democratic and liberal order be established in Israel? Perhaps, but some basics will have to change, chief among them the Zionist belief in the need for a sovereign Jewish nation state. Zionism is a political program that made sense in the historical and ideological context of late nineteenth century Europe but that is unsustainable in a contemporary context. When Israel itself, and the Jewish community that supports it can begin to let go of these anachronistic strivings, then and only then can we turn ourselves to the task of recreating Israel as a political entity that can live in peace with its Arab neighbors and can join the international community as a nation truly committed to democratic and liberal principles.


    1. Howard Ellegant

      Mark, I am curious about your comment, “…some basics will have to change, chief among them the Zionist belief in the need for a sovereign Jewish nation state.” For clarification, how would you otherwise define or identify Israel if not as “a sovereign Jewish nation state.” Not looking for argument, just want to know what are the possibilities or which words in that definition you find problematic and how they might be changed. Looking forward to your reply.

      1. Mark Braverman

        Apologies for taking so long to respond! Your question has been on my mind, and it’s a question that certainly is not going to go away — it’s pretty fundamental. Basically, as I hope is clear from the paragraph in which the comment occurs, I think we need to let go of political Zionism. It doesn’t work in the modern world, and although it may have seemed like the solution for the desperate situation of the Jews in Europe when it was conceived in the 19th century, it’s not the solution for anti-Semitism. We Jews live throughout the world and are well adapted to be a successful minority wherever we live. Ethnic nationalism (heck, nationalism in general) is a dangerous force, especially when it is combined with religion. National Socialism in Germany proved that. “Never again” should mean let’s look for a different kind of solution to racism and prejudice. If you ask me the follow up, which is, “if not a Jewish State, then what?” I’ll give you the intelligent answer, which is, “I don’t know.” But I do know that what we have now in Israel, what your fellow congregants just witnessed first hand, is apartheid, and it’s the inevitable, logical result of the Zionist project, and Israel, with our help, has to find a way to dig itself out of that hole. And it’s going to involve sharing the land, and letting go of the catastrophic illusion that it can control the entire territory. My experience, and that of the RJC folks who met them, is that the Palestinians are eager to share the land with us. The sooner we realize that and are ready to work toward that end, the sooner the solution can be found.

  2. Stewart Mills - Sydney

    Right on Brant! Here’s to secular democracies.

    A related question is what do you think about state funding for religious schools in secular democracies? In Sydney there is a growing ghettoization of education. Christian, Jewish and Islamic schools might provide a wonderful opportunity for diversity, but I am concerned that without the right external influences such schools may just churn out closed minds be that anti-Semitic, anti-Arab, anti-Gay etc.. So the first time a young Jewish person meets a Muslim may be in university or vice versa. This surely must have life-limiting effects.

  3. Stewart Mills - Sydney

    Howard – the best hope for Israel and Palestine is to follow other Western nations in the path of pluralistic secular democracies. Modern Zionism is a 19th Century philosophy that suffered from the same European arrogance that permeated the modern period where local inhabitants were pushed to the side to let in Europeans. These Jewish nationalists then had the gall to cry foul play and blue murder when the local communities rebelled.

    Religo-ethnic identity cannot be used to privilege an individual within the state. An ideal that favours a religio-ethnic identity creates inequality within a state right from the word go. So if you happen to be born of one religious-ethnic group you are back at the end of the line (or worse). Attempting to force Israeli into being a Jewish State will only hurt Jewish-Israelis in the long-run. It is only when we put our human-ness first before our other identities that we as a species will have a chance to continue on this small fragile planet for a time. Exclusivist tribal thinking is the breeding ground for wars and division.

    1. Shirin

      Religo-ethnic identity cannot be used to privilege an individual within the state.

      Clearly it can, and is being used in this way. Perhaps you should have said it “should not” or that it “must not”. :o}


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