Sunday 12 December 2010

Action or Reaction? The Rabbis' Ruling in Context.

A ruling initiated by the Chief Rabbi of Safed, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, has again served to split Israeli society along the religious-secular divide. The ruling prohibits Jews from renting their properties to Arab tenants. The ruling was initially signed by 18 rabbis, after which it was signed by a further 50 rabbis from across Israel, many of them municipal rabbis.

Rabbi Eliyahu and his followers have warned that renting Jewish properties to Arabs will deflate the value of their homes and the value of others in the neighbourhood. Further, the rabbis warn that the way of life of the Arabs is different to that of the Jews, and that there are those Arabs who are bitter and hateful to Jews and who will meddle in their lives to the point that they become a danger.

The ruling is undoubtedly racist, and can be seen as an act of incitement. How can such a ruling be justified in a democratic country? It certainly doesn't make for good news sound bites nor good public relations. It has prompted many citizens of Israel to speak out, and to call upon the Attorney General to take action against the rabbis in question. The fact that many of the rabbis are civil servants means that they can be held to account by the government that pays their salaries. In a region which is already volatile, statements like these rub salt in the wounds of the conflicts which rage on every front.

The current state of Middle Eastern politics is such that it is difficult to determine whether an individual action is merely intended as a provocation to make a point, or whether it is genuinely a response to provocations or attacks. Under these circumstances, it is possible to justify almost any action as being a valid reaction to unreasonable behaviour by the other side. Inevitably, any controversial act leads to a chain of responses which, if not controlled, can spiral out of control. The rabbis in this case are citing prior actions by Arabs as justification for their ruling. But how far can we go in using previous negative behaviour to justify current action?

Was the first action that began the conflict, the act by Abraham to expel Ishmael and Hagar from his family at Sarah's insistence? Ishmael went on to father the Islamic people while Abraham's son Isaac was in the chain of the Jewish people. This may, indeed, have been the start of the Middle East conflict as we know it. But how relevant is this in looking at the ruling of the rabbis in the year 2010?

When looking at the endless cycle of action and reaction, I am inclined to look back a short 63 years to the day when the United Nations approved the Palestine Partition Plan. It was on this day that the world's nations agreed to bring into existence the State of Israel as a Jewish democratic country. This was the original action - taken by a majority of the world's countries. This also gave rise to the original reaction, this time taken by the Arab nations. They immediately attacked the newly independent State of Israel with a view to destroying the Jewish state. Every act since then could be characterised as a link in the chain of reactions to the "original reaction". This includes the recent ruling by the rabbis which attempts to hang onto each and every part of the State of Israel for Jews. It is my contention that such a ruling would not be necessary, and may have not have been issued, were it not for the fact that the Arabs have been intent on destroying Israel and her Jewish citizens from the outset.

In this context, the rabbis' ruling is not entirely without basis or justification. It is probably true that renting apartments to Arabs will reduce the value of the flats in the neighbourhood. Many Jewish Israelis are reluctant to live next door to Arabs in view of terror attacks, and the assistance given by Israeli Arabs to Palestinian terrorists in their attempts to find civilian targets for their outrageous acts. These attacks have frequently led to Jews being killed and maimed. Nobody would wish to have people like that as their neighbours. Arabs have also been found to exploit such a situation by creating an infiltration of a Jewish neighbourhood which has frightened the Jewish residents away. This effectively leaves the neighbourhood free to be taken over the Arabs. In a land where possession is everything, such a tactic can have enormous consequences for the demographic make-up of the area. In short, the ruling of the rabbis can be viewed as a reaction to events that have been building over the last six decades.

Although there are many Israelis who have spoken out in objection to this ruling and the related statements by the rabbis, most of those who will read and judge the ruling are those living outside of Israel. They will interpret the ruling on the basis of the environment in which they live, and predicated on the experiences that they have in their own local neighbourhood. Statements like this would be wholly unacceptable in Europe or the Unites States. But life in these parts of the world is a million miles away from life in the Middle East, and it would be entirely inappropriate to judge events in Israel by the same standards.

The main problem with the ruling and similar acts is that it allows no optimism for the future. To feel optimistic, one needs to feel that the chain of action and reaction can be broken at some point, to allow the groundwork to be laid for a more normal coexistence. While restraint has previously been interpreted as weakness and exploited in the worst possible way, it will ultimately be the only way to coax peace out of the situation of war that we currently find ourselves in. The trick is to find the right moment to act tough in defence of your rights and your people, and the right moment to be flexible in the search for peace. This is, however, like a search for the Holy Grail.


Alfred Aronson said...

the ruling was not against renting to "arabs" but instead goys was the word used

Anthony Reich said...

Thanks for your feedback. I have not seen the original text of the ruling, but accept that it may have referred to "goys" (non-Jews) rather than specifically to Arabs.

Even if this is the case, it is clear that it is mostly aimed towards Arabs as they constitute most of the "goys" who would wish to rent homes in Israel.

Perhaps more important is the fact that the press has picked it up as being anti-Arab, and this is the perception that we are all left with.