Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Stuck In The Middle

Recently there has been an enormous uproar in Israel and abroad over a ruling by 50 Israeli rabbis that it is forbidden according to halacha (Jewish law) for Israeli Jews to sell land or to rent property to Arabs.

First things first – I agree with those who have so vociferously opposed this ruling as racist, and completely unacceptable in a Jewish Democratic state.

As a religiously committed Jew, there are very few things that anger me more than seeing Jewish Law invoked to further political agendas. I'm all for having strong political views – even those with which I disagree or find completely misguided.

I'm also all for having strong religious beliefs – in believing in whatever it is a person believes and in finding the consistency between those beliefs and said person's practice (assuming those beliefs are not constructed to bring harm to anyone).

But I am very careful about mixing the two and I am wary of those who do so.

Yes – demographics are a concern, and the desire to keep a very clear Jewish majority wherever we can in Israel is very important.

Yes, too many Arab Israelis (although certainly not all) support – either in spirit or in money, and actual participation – their Palestinian brethren's struggle against the "evil Zionist entity". While this struggle is ostensibly being waged against the so-called "occupation" (more that that topic in another blog), very few of us really believe that thanks to how many attacks are perpetrated in Israel "proper" (i.e. not outside of the Green Line, i.e. the parts of Israel which are not meant to be in question). As a result, it is not unreasonable in the least for Jews to decide that not only do we want to have a Jewish majority in the Jewish State, but that it is preferable to live in a community where none of our neighbors might possibly be joining our enemies in an effort to destroy Israel.

So, I can understand the sentiments behind wanting a ruling such as the recent one issued and I can understand the desire for Jewish Israelis to sell and rent only to other Jewish Israelis. And if individuals choose to do so for their own personal reasons, that is completely their prerogative.

But certainly not as a matter of national policy and even more certainly not as a Rabbinical decision presented as though it was a matter of Jewish Law handed down throughout the generations since the Torah was first given to us at Mount Sinai.

That's crossing a line.

That is taking the Torah, the Talmud, and the great Mesorah (tradition) handed down by our Rabbis and leaders for millennia, and using it to demonize an entire race of people.

And that's racism.

The line becomes even more crossed (I'm not really sure how that imagery works, but hopefully you get the idea) when so many of the Rabbinical authorities issuing such a decree are chief rabbis of municipalities in Israel – that is to say government employees.

Fortunately there are also many Rabbis and halachic authorities – both current and past – who do not agree with this recent ruling. The relevance is that, as with most issues of halacha, the answer is not so clear cut. There are varying viewpoints, and they all have a root in the ancient and sacred Jewish texts.

So while the Israeli political right has rallied behind these Rabbis and their Torah-based justification for a racist statement, the Israeli (and world) left has rallied to condemn it.

And while I agree with their complaint about the left has regarding this ruling, I also believe that the left has lost the right to protest the ruling on the basis which they protest it.

The idea of a religious law declaring that it is forbidden to sell land to an entire race of people is nothing new, and one does not need to look back further than a year ago for another example.

The Palestinian Land Laws for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip prohibit the selling of any Arab-owned land to Jews, and in early 2009 a Palestinian Islamic Chief Justice issued a fatwa (religious decree) to enforce this law. Violation of the law (that is to say – selling land or property to Jews) is considered by Palestinian Law to be High Treason and it carries the death penalty.

This is not simply bombastic talk, folks – this is real. In April 2009, a man was convicted and sentenced to death by a Palestinian military court.

Where was the outcry from the left – either in Israel or anywhere else in the world? Where were the charges of racism, and calls for inquiries, dismissals and charge of incitement?

Over the last few days you would not believe (actually, you probably would) how many of my Facebook friends have posted articles, op-eds, blogs, analyses, etc. decrying the racist ruling of the 50 rabbis. The number of posts and re-posts and status updates regarding this have been in the hundreds, if not thousands.

Yet, if the objection to the ruling was truly rooted in a complete rejection of racism, then shouldn't we also be yelling and screaming about the racism in the Palestinian world which has religious leaders issuing the exact same rulings?

If the left wants to show respect for the Palestinians and show that they regard them as equals, then they need to hold the Palestinian people and their leadership to the same standards that they hold Israel and Israeli leadership.

If racist religious decrees are wrong (which I believe they are), then they are wrong from either end of the spectrum, and if the left wants to make a stand against racist religious edicts, then they need to make that stand whenever and wherever these edicts are issued.

Choosing to protest the racism only when it comes from those on the opposite end of the political spectrum is both hypocritical and racist in and of itself. It is assuming that the Palestinians "don't know any better" or, even worse, are justified in practicing the same racism that too many on the Israeli right practice.

And that is simply unacceptable. Period.

Perhaps it's time for the Israeli right to stop allowing their religious views affect their political ones and for the left to stop allowing their political views affect their religious ones.

Until then, I sort of feel like the Stealers Wheel song "Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. Here I am, stuck in the middle with you".


  1. I agree with you that this law shouldn't have been handed down the way it was. I'd have a better time accepting it I suppose if it was stated as being nationally necessary at this time. Period. Leave Torah out of it.
    As to why people don't hold equal standards to each...as crazy as this may sound, and I know it does because we're supposed to be adults... but it's like when a younger child causes a problem and the older one gets in the trouble because 'they should have known better'.
    I know on some level that reasoning is crap. But on another... it's a quiet statement about trust and regard, at least IMO. Whenever I've ever uttered the 'you should have known better' to one of my own (older) children it was because I truly believed she had more knowledge, wisdom to solve the problem instead of going in the direction she went.
    Is it fair to Israel to be held to the higher standard? probably not. But they always will be.

  2. The world holding us to a higher moral standard is one thing (although I agree with you that it shouldn't be that way), but what especially bothers me is the Israeli left crying foul over what their own leadership does while turning the blind eye to the exact same actions by the Palestinian leadership.

    Either they are bothered by the racism of the ruling, or they are bothered because it's not good for the Palistinians, whome many here feel should be given a better shake.

    If it's the racism, then be consistent and denounce the racism wherever you see it.

    If it's because they don't want to harm or upset the Palestinians, then even if I disagree with it, at least I can understand the reasoning and people shoudl call it for what it is.

  3. Maybe it's the theory of 'relative'... You know, there are those that are comfortable pointing out every mistake of every member of their (Israeli) family, but when a stranger does the same thing, they shrug and say, what? I'm supposed to say something? I don't even know them..
    Again... is it right? no! Racism is racism. As you said; you want to truly stop it, than the finger points where racism is, not where it is most comfortable to point.
    Heck, many of them probably don't even see the bigger problem. In their zest for championing the 'underdog' they are loosing sight of why these kinds of laws are becoming necessary (removing the far right stuff). reminds me of something but I'll send that comment in email...

  4. In principle, I agree with you, Asher. The left should be decrying the Palestinian decree as much as the Israeli rabbinical decree. In principle.

    But if you believe that we are responsible for our OWN behavior and not for another's behavior, then we must decry our own bad behavior and we have license to be silent about another's. That is, after all, their own business. Let the Palestinian left (well, until they're all killed) decry their racism.

    I guess, in the end, I am a leftist. I believe we're responsible for our behavior and that we must improve ourselves and not worry so much about the others insofar that it does not affect us. (Obviously violence perpetrated towards Israelis is another matter.) A rightist thinks it's unfair that we're held to a higher standard. While correct, it does nothing for self-improvement, which I believe is a religious mandate, whereas תוכחה to others is a very tricky matter...

  5. Chaim, I see what you're saying, and yes - our primary responsibility is to monitor our own behaviour and our own actions.

    However, I would offer this thought:

    We are not simply talking about how another nation manages their own affairs. I'm not suggesting that the left is hypocritical for blasting Israel while ignoring what happens, say, in Uganda.

    Rather, we are talking about the people with whom we are supposedly trying to find a road to co-existence. How can we ever hope to find a middle ground based on mutual respect if we ignore their leadership relating to us in the exact same racist manner that we refuse to accept from our own leadership in its relationship to them?

    Making it even worse was a post by one of my more vociferous friends the other day against the ruling, who shared on his Facebook page an article written by some prominent Palestinian decrying the ruling. The obvious rationale is that this Palestinian felt he had the right to speak about Israeli policy because it effects him and his people.

    If that is the case, then we are all the more permitted - even obligated to speak out against Palestinian racism when it specifically treats Israeli Jews in a racist manner.

    Otherwise, there is no reason to even think about a peace process with a people that won't give us the basic basic human respect that we need to be showing them.

  6. I'm not sure that there isn't a halachic basis for not selling land to non-Jews.
    We were supposed to come in, conquer it all, and not even fully sell the land out of a family - only lease it until the yovel.
    Today's Moslems certainly don't have the status of Ger Toshav. They are another nation, and I'm not sure that one can halachically justify selling the land of Eretz Yisrael to members of another nation.