Nineteen years ago this week, the United Nations General Assembly voted to repeal its 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism.
“We have come to expel the darkness,” said Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy shortly before the vote, quoting a Hebrew Hanukka song.
“To equate Zionism with the intolerable sin of racism,” U.S. President George H. W. Bush told the United Nations, “is to twist history and forget the terrible plight of Jews in World War II and indeed throughout history.”
Now, however, the argument is being resurrected that Zionism — indeed Judaism — is racism. Most troubling, the argument is being made by Zionist rabbis — rabbis on the payroll of the Israeli government.
“Racism originated in the Torah,” Rabbi Yosef Scheinen told the Ha’aretz newspaper.
Scheinen was defending his signature on a letter written by Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Safed, declaring it “forbidden by the Torah” to rent to a gentile.
“The Bible tells us that Jews should not give a place to gentiles. Israel is the land given to the Jews by God, anyone else is here as a guest,” Rabbi David Lahiani, another signatory, told BBC. Such guests aren’t welcome to rent in Jewish neighborhoods, according to Lahiani, who heads Bet Midrash Lihilchot Shebein Adam Lichaveiro — the Study House for Laws Between Man and His Fellow.
Eliyahu is son of former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, who died earlier this year. (Eliyahu’s knack for bigotry and controversy has pedigree: The former chief rabbi had described the 2004 tsunami as “divine punishment” on Asian nations which supported Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, and said the Holocaust was God’s response to Reform Judaism, which had originated in Germany.)
Shmuel Eliyahu’s letter against renting to gentiles included a call to ostracize Jews who violate the prohibition, including boycotting them commercially and not calling them up to read from the Torah.
Allowing gentiles to live in the neighborhood, wrote Eliyahu, will lead to the sin of intermarriage, as well as bringing down property values.
From the standpoint of settled Jewish law, Eliyahu’s letter is ludicrous. Most notably, it ignores the rulings of several early chief rabbis that renting and even selling property in Israel to non-Jews is allowed, and of centuries of rulings that Muslims and Christians are not the idolaters described by the Torah.
But Eliyahu’s letter has garnered support from 300 Israeli rabbis, with 48 of them being official rabbis of the municipalities.
Several of Israel’s most prominent rabbis denounced the letter last week. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who heads the Shas party, let it be known that he had refused to sign, calling the petition “unnecessary and harmful.”
“The next thing we know, Jews in London and Paris will be told the same thing,” Yosef was quoted as saying.
Give Yosef credit for understanding that what goes around comes around, and that how Israeli rabbis express themselves can have consequences here in the Diaspora.
The most important rabbi in the fervently Orthodox world, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, also came out against the letter. He, too, is old enough to have been shaped by life in the Diaspora.
Neither of the current chief rabbis, however, has addressed the issue.
Some moderate religious Zionists also opposed the ruling.
Outside the rabbinate, the letter was condemned by Yad Vashem, which called it an “egregious blow to the values of our lives as Jews and human beings in a democratic state.” President Shimon Peres condemned the remarks, as did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu, however, did not promise action against the rabbis, who may have broken Israel’s anti-incitement statutes and the requirement to behave in an upstanding manner as civil servants. It was left to the opposition Meretz party to petition the attorney general to investigate the matter. (In response, the National Union Party planned to introduce a bill which would grant rabbis the same immunity for incitement given to Knesset members.)
What does this mean for American Jews?
It’s time to understand that there are several kinds of Zionism, and that one of them is avowedly racist. This Zionism has strong support in some sectors of Orthodox Judaism. It’s a Zionism that is not interested in the liberal values in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. It’s a Zionism that is quick to defend the outrageous on the grounds that Saudi Arabia and Iran are worse. And it’s a Zionism which has strong support from sections of the current Israeli government.
More than 750 Diaspora rabbis have signed a letter circulated by the New Israel Fund, the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbis for Human Rights, and J Street’s Rabbinical Cabinet condemning Eliyahu’s letter as a distortion of Jewish tradition and a desecration of God’s name. But Eliyahu’s letter, and its support by Israeli government officials, is not a one-time matter. It’s the culmination of years of increasing bigotry and radicalization within the Israeli rabbinate.
Back in the day, Israel challenged American Jewry to lead the fight against the Zionism is racism resolution at the United Nations. Now, it’s appropriate for us to make clear at all levels that we won’t stand for a Zionism that is racism. Our Judaism and our Zionism is at stake.