The No Rent Rule: What Happened to Jewish Ethics?

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December 29, 2010

Those of us living in a 21st century democracy tend to assume that we all believe human beings are fundamentally equal and should be treated as being fundamentally equal, no matter their skin color, ethnicity, country of origin, gender, sexual identity, religion, etc. This is the principle that undergirds the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution’s motto of liberte, equalite, fraternite. Many would say this principle of equality has been the key to creating our modern, globalized society.

Yet, the recent ruling by a number of prominent Orthodox rabbis in Israel underscores that some of us continue to believe that racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination are ethical and moral. This statement was issued by a number of government-appointed rabbis–for instance, the Chief Rabbis of Ashkelon, Herziliyah, Carmiel, Kefar Sava, Ashdod, Eilat, and Yokneam—warning Israeli home owners not to rent or sell their houses to other-than-Jews. The statement was issued as a halakhic one, in the name of the Israeli religious establishment, citing Jewish religious terminology and sources. It is truly an embarrassment to Israel and the Jewish People.

The main arguments of these rabbis are that selling and renting to people who are other-than-Jewish will bring down the value of the properties of other Jews who live in the neighborhood and will endanger the moral fiber of the neighborhood and lead to intermarriage. Moreover, it violates the prohibition against handing over the Land of Israel to other-than-Jews (based on the verse in Deuteronomy, “You shall not show them favor”).

As Rabbi Yehudah Gilad, the Rabbi of Kibbutz Lavi and Head of the Yeshiva at Maalei Gilboa, wrote so eloquently in a statement he issued against the statement of these rabbis:

Outstanding rabbis of recent generations, led by Rabbi Herzog, first Chief Rabbi of Israel, ruled that the prohibition “you shall not show them favor” (Deut. 7:2) written in the Torah and part of the cannon of Halakhah, is not relevant to the reality of a Jewish democratic state–a member of the family of nations, which promised before the entire world to grant equality to its citizens regardless of religion, race or sex… We should remember the country’s Jewish character is measured first and foremost through moral parameters. Dozens of times the Torah tells us to love the stranger. “You shall love the stranger because you were strangers in Egypt.” As a people who suffered discrimination and racism for generations, we bear a responsibility to be a paragon of decency to the minorities that live among us. This is the way of Torah and Halakhah from time immemorial. As the Rambam writes in another context: “the Torah’s laws are not to bring revenge into the world, rather they are to bring mercy and grace and peace into the world.” Anyone for whom the Torah of Israel is dear, must rise up and protest against this perverse ruling. For just these types of circumstances it was said, “where there is a desecration of God, one pays no honor to the Rabbis.”

Rabbi David Golinkin, Head of the Machon Shechter Rabbinical School of the Masorti Movement (the Conservative Movement’s parallel in Israel), wrote a halakhic response to the statement, which refutes with halakhic arguments all of the claims of these rabbis. Among his arguments are his proof that retaining Israel’s democratic nature is actually a halakhic imperative.

But more importantly, like Rabbi Gilad, he stresses the importance of ethical and common sense concerns when issuing halakhic rulings, and that issuing statements that are morally repugnant is a desecration of God’s name. I would go so far as to say that issuing a morally repugnant statement in the guise of a halakhic ruling is actually a ruse. How could one claim something is not ethical yet halakhic? I assume the rabbis who issued this statement believe that what they are suggesting is ethical. Otherwise, how could they claim it is the will of God as passed through the channel of human beings through their interpretation? I assume therefore that what is at issue here is the definition of what is and what is not moral.

When my family and I moved north, to Lower Galilee from Jerusalem, we decided to rent out our Jerusalem home to help finance our move. As it so happens, we are renting to other-than-Jews. Lovely people, I should add, who are taking better care of our home than we ever did. And it never crossed our mind not to sign the lease with them when they were ready to sign. To our shock, neighbors of ours in Jerusalem were furious with us, making some of the same claims that this statement issued by those rabbis does. They claimed this would lower the value of their home and would be a bad influence on their children. They argued that they immigrated to Israel, “made aliyah”, to be surrounded by Jews and only Jews. How could we do this to them?! They even threatened to file a law suit against us.

Once we got over the shock, their reaction actually made us ill. These thoughts were being expressed by people who identify as right-wing Orthodox and claim to be living a halakhic Jewish lifestyle. In their eyes, they are acting in accordance with God’s Will and we are desecrating God’s name. Clearly, they did not see our tenants as human beings who should be treated with respect and kindness. Clearly, they see only Jews as having been created in God’s Image. Clearly they never heard of the biblical injunction to “love the stranger because you too were strangers in Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34) or the Sage Hillel’s famous line, “What is hateful to you do not do to others, this is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary, go and learn” (BT Shabbat 31a). Apparently our neighbors did not greet our tenants with a cake and a friendly face when they moved in. I only hope they are not making their lives miserable. This, in my opinion, like the rabbinic statement, would shame the Jewish People and be a desecration of God’s name.

For my former neighbors, and for rabbis like those who would sign such a statement, it is moral to discriminate on the basis of religion, race, and ethnicity. They are living in a different moral reality than those who believe in equality, democracy, and pluralism. They believe that they hold the key to the truth—which is a truth that places Jews (and I would add Jewish white males,especially rabbis) on the top rung of the hierarchy—and the rest of us on various different rungs in descending order.

Those who defend the rabbis’ statement often cite a concern that many in Israel hold, a concern that a growing non-Jewish population will deplete the Jewish character of the Jewish State. These Jews believe in Jewish religious sovereignty/hegemony in Israel at all costs. No matter what the Jewish religion must look like in order to retain its existence in general and its sovereignty in the Land of Israel, it is worth preserving.

I disagree, and I speak as someone who knows very well what it means to live in a part of Israel where Jews are the minority. The place we moved to in Galilee is Kibbutz Hannaton, which is absolutely within the 1967 green line but is only a tiny Jewish spec on the map surrounded on all sides by much larger Arab villages. We are sandwiched between the Bedouin village of Bir al Muksar and the mostly Muslim village of Kufr Manda. Shefar’am and Zarzir (mixed Muslim and Christian villages) are close by to our south-east and -west, and others like Kaukab are close by to the north. I go to Kufr Manda for medical care, and that is where our closest pharmacy is located as well. Not only do I feel like a minority among Arabs where I live, but I rely on my Arab neighbors for a variety of services—car maintenance, dental care, medical care, public transportation, etc.

I could take this experience and argue that yes, we do need to populate the North with Jews to make our mark here, plant our Jewish flag, and claim this land as our own. Yet, I do not feel that way. The Arab Israelis and Palestinians I have befriended in Galileehave been living here for generations. They are tied to this Land and this area in many ways more holistically than I am. I am new to the area and have a lot to learn from my Arab neighbors.

When I lived in Jerusalem, I felt that I was in the majority, and oppressing a minority. Living in Galilee, I am even more humbled. I feel that I am in a minority oppressing a majority. And that gives me a different perspective on the entire situation here.

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