JERUSALEM, (AFP) — Fifty Israeli rabbis have signed an open letter warning Jews not to rent or sell property to non-Jews, saying those who do should be “ostracised,” a copy of the letter showed on Tuesday.
The advice was condemned by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said “this kind of speech should be banned in a Jewish and democratic state.”
The letter instructs that “it is forbidden in the Torah to sell a house or a field in the land of Israel to a foreigner,” referring to the Pentateuch — the first five books of the Bible.
Signed mostly by state-employed rabbis, the document warns that “he who sells or rents them a flat in an area where Jews live causes great harm to his neighbours.”
“After someone sells or rents just one flat, the value of all the neighbouring flats drops… He who sells or rents (to non-Jews) causes his neighbours a big loss and his sin is great,” the letter said, in what was largely understood to refer to Israel’s Arab minority.
“Anyone who sells (property to a non-Jew) must be cut off!!”
According to the Israeli news website Ynet, the letter is to be published in religious newspapers and distributed in synagogues across the country later this week.
A statement issued by Netanyhu’s office late on Tuesday condemned the letter.
“Among Israeli citizens, there are non-Jews. How we would react if someone claimed that it is forbidden to sell houses to Jews? We would be outraged, as we are when we hear such calls among our neighbours,” he said.
“This kind of speech should be banned in a Jewish and democratic state that respects Jewish tradition and the Bible.”
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel called on Netanyahu to discipline state-employed rabbis who signed the letter.
“Rabbis who are civil servants have an obligation to the entire public, including Israel’s Arab citizens. It is unthinkable that they would use their public status to promote racism and incitement,” the group said.
Mohammed Barakeh, an Arab-Israeli member of parliament, said the letter was “supremely racist” and called for the government’s legal adviser to investigate the rabbis behind it.
An influential group of Orthodox rabbis also condemned the letter.
“It is forbidden to discriminate among citizens in a democracy,” said Yaakov Ariel, head of the Tsohar organisation, and grand rabbi of the Israeli city of Ramat Gan.
Hunman rights watchdog Amnesty International said the letter “clearly targets the Palestinian citizens who make up 20 per cent of Israel?s population, and highlights the continuing discrimination they face in housing and other areas.”
It came as tensions grow between religious Jewish and Arab-Israeli residents of the northern town of Safed, where local rabbi Shmuel Eliahu has called on Jews to avoid renting or selling property to Arabs.
Safed’s college attracts Arab-Israeli students from the surrounding area, many of whom seek accommodation in the town while studying.
In October, Israeli MPs approved a draft law to allow villages to reject new residents on the basis of being socially “unsuitable,” a move human rights groups denounced as racist.
The bill would allow communities of up to 500 people to bar potential residents on grounds of “unsuitability to the community’s social and cultural fabric,” a measure seen as targeting Arab Israelis.
In November, a poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute found 46 percent of Jewish Israelis preferred not to live next door to Arabs, while two-thirds — or 67 percent — of Arabs preferred not to live next to ultra-Orthodox Jews.
It also found 53 percent of Jewish Israelis backed government incentives for Arabs to emigrate.
Israel has 1.3 million Arab citizens — Palestinians who remained in the country after the creation of the Jewish state in 1948 and their descendants.