December 2010 Israeli rabbi letter controversy

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The December 2010 Israeli rabbi letter controversy was a scandal that erupted surrounding the appearance of two open letters, signed by a number of Israeli rabbis, that were discriminatory towards non-Jews in Israel. Although the letters sparked considerable outrage, evoking condemnation from prominent Israeli and American Jews and others, a poll showed that a sizeable portion of Israeli society supported the letters' messages.


Rabbis' letter[edit]

The rabbis' letter was a psak din (religious ruling) signed by an estimated 50 rabbis, that urged Israeli landowners not to rent apartments to Arabs, or any other non-Jews.[1] The letter was initiated by the chief rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu.[2] On January 2, 2011, Eliyahu was summoned to an Israeli police interrogation on suspicion of incitement to racism, which is a crime in Israel,[3] but he refused to answer the summons.[1][4]

Many of the rabbis who signed the letter were municipal rabbis, state employees in charge of religious services, who receive salaries paid for by the taxpayer. Among the signers were rabbis from Rishon LeZion, Ramat HaSharon, Herzliya, Kfar Saba and Holon (suburbs of Tel Aviv); from Jerusalem; and from other towns and settlements.[5]

According to a poll conducted by the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a narrow plurality of Jewish Israelis were opposed to the rabbis' call not to rent to Arabs: 48 percent opposed the statement, and 44 percent supported it.[6][7][8]

Rebbetzins' letter[edit]

The second letter was released on December 28, 2010, by the Lehava organization. It was signed by at least 27 rebbetzins (rabbis' wives). It urged young Jewish women to not date Arabs, and to not work at locations where non-Jews might be present.[6]



Politicians and activists[edit]

  • Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, and leader of the Likud party: On December 7, 2010, Netanyahu condemned the letter in a speech before the International Bible Contest for adults in Jerusalem. He stated, ""How would we feel if we were told not to sell an apartment to Jews?" We would protest, and we protest now when it is said of our neighbors," and "Such things cannot be said, not about Jews and not about Arabs. They cannot be said in any democratic country, and especially not in a Jewish and democratic one. The state of Israel rejects these sayings."[9]
  • Ehud Barak, Deputy Prime Minister, Defense Minister, and leader of the Labor party: Barak stated that "The rabbis' letters is part of a racist tidal wave threatening to sweep Israeli society into dark and dangerous zones. The Labor Party under my authority is working to draw all of Israel's citizens together, in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence."[10]
  • Reuven Rivlin, Knesset Speaker (Likud): Rivlin said to Haaretz in an interview that "In my opinion, their statement shames the Jewish people...I see this general statement as an embarrassment to the Jewish people, and another nail in the coffin of Israeli democracy. Let me make this absolutely clear: I believe these people do the most damage to the state of Israel." He continued, "Israel can justify its faith in itself as a Jewish state only if it wields its democratic powers totally and unreservedly. This moral right will be taken from us if we prove to the world that, when it comes to democracy, we deny anything which does not suit us from a Jewish point of view." He also urged the attorney general to determine whether the letter constitutes the crime of incitement.
  • Avishay Braverman, Minorities Affairs Minister: Braverman had called for Eliyahu's ouster as early as November 18, 2010.[11] On December 12, 2010, Braverman threatened to push for his party, Labor, to quit the coalition, stating that "There is a hatred of foreigners. The nation is turning into Iran following the rabbis' letter."[12]
  • The Association for Civil Rights in Israel demanded that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemn the letter (which he later did), and take disciplinary action against state-employed signatories of the letter, saying in a statement that "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."[13]

Religious organizations[edit]

  • Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, dean of Yeshivat Har Etzion, and a major Religious Zionist rabbinical figure:[14] Lichtenstein wrote a lengthy and erudite letter of opposition.[15]
  • Rabbis Yosef Shalom Eliashiv and Aharon Leib Shteinman, the leading Ashkenazic Haredi rabbis in Israel: Eliashiv and Steinman strongly condemned the edict.[16]
  • U.S. rabbis: Numerous American rabbis also condemned the letter. An online petition for rabbis posted by the New Israel Fund on December 10, 2010 had nearly 1000 rabbis as signatories by December 16.[17] The petition stated that "Am Yisrael (The Jewish People) know(s) the sting of discrimination, and we still bear the scars of hatred. When those who represent the official rabbinic leadership of the State of Israel express such positions, we are distressed by this Chillul HaShem (desecration of God's name)....Statements like these do great damage to our efforts to encourage people to love and support Israel. They communicate to our congregants that Israel does not share their values, and they promote feelings of alienation and distancing." Notable American rabbis who signed the petition included Conservative Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly; Reform Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism); and Orthodox Rabbis Avi Weiss, the leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and Marc Angel. Signatories included members of all major American Jewish denominations. A separate condemnation was issued by the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America.[18]
  • Israeli Masorti rabbis: Roughly 50 Masorti rabbis signed a counter-letter allowing Jews to rent to non-Jews, while 40 female Israeli Reform rabbis representing the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism issued a counter-letter proclaiming "professional and social contacts" between Jews and non-Jews to be positive, and that "Jews who are confident in their Jewish identity do not have to fear contact with people from other nations," a statement also supported by the council's 50 male Reform rabbis [19] The Reform rabbis also argued that the rebbetzins' attitude toward Israeli girls was "condescending", portrayed them as "weak", and perpetuated male chauvinism. Their counter-letter encouraged Israelis not to listen to "hate-mongers and fanatics".[20]


  • A response letter was directed to the Israeli government by various Israeli academicians and artisans, criticizing the lax approach by the government to racial and religious incitement by rabbis, and calling for the prosecution of the original letter's signatories for incitement to racism. Among the signatories to the response letter were former politician Shulamit Aloni, author Yoram Kaniuk, sculptor Dani Karavan, politicians Zehava Gal-On and Naomi Hazan.[21]
  • Holocaust survivors condemned the letter. Noah Flug, the chairman of the International Association of Holocaust Survivors, stated that "As someone who suffered as a Jew and underwent the Holocaust, I remember the Nazis throwing Jews out of their apartments and city centres in order to create ghettos. I remember how they wrote on benches that no Jews were allowed, and of course it was prohibited to sell or rent to Jews. We thought that in our country this wouldn't happen."[22]
  • Public opinion: When a poll was conducted of Jewish Israelis' reaction to the letters denouncing those who rent or sell homes to non-Jews, 48 per cent of Israeli Jews opposed the rabbis' call, while 44 per cent supported it.[23]



  1. ^ a b Marcy Oster (3 January 2011). "Safed rabbi refuses police summons over anti-Arab letter". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 
  2. ^ Kobi Nahshoni (3 January 2011). "Druckman: It's a rabbi's duty to voice opinions". Ynetnews. 
  3. ^ a b Kobi Nahshoni (2 January 2011). "Safed rabbi interrogated on incitement charges". Ynetnews. 
  4. ^ Kobi Nahshoni (31 December 2010). "Safed Rabbi fails to answer investigation summons". Ynetnews. 
  5. ^ noam (7 December 2010). "50 Israeli Rabbis issue ruling forbidding renting of homes to Arabs". Promised Land. 
  6. ^ a b Levinson, Chaim. (2010-11-19) "Rabbis' wives urge Israeli women: Stay away from Arab men" Haaretz. Retrieved on 2011-01-06.
  7. ^ "Rebbetzins: Women, stay away from Arab men". The Jerusalem Post. 28 December 2010. Retrieved 2011-01-06. 
  8. ^ Asaf Shtull-Trauring (28 December 2010). "Report: 44% of Israeli Jews Support Rabbis' Edict Forbidding Rentals to Arabs in Safed". Haaretz. Retrieved 2011-01-06. 
  9. ^ Barak Ravid; Chaim Levinson (7 December 2010). "Netanyahu Slams Top Rabbis' Call to Forbid Renting Homes to Arabs". Haaretz. 
  10. ^ Attila Somfalvi (29 December 2010). "Barak: Rabbis', wives' letters part of racist tidal wave". Ynetnews. 
  11. ^ Jonah Mandel (18 November 2010). "Braverman calls to oust Safed rabbi for racial incitement". The Jerusalem Post. 
  12. ^ Attila Somfalvi (22 December 2010). "Minister Braverman threatens to quit, says Israel turning into Iran". Ynetnews. 
  13. ^ Sherwood, Harriet (December 7, 2010). "Dozens of Israeli rabbis back call to forbid sale of property to Arabs". The Guardian. London. 
  14. ^ Jeffrey Goldberg (14 December 2010). "A Bit of Good News on the Don't-Sell-to-the Arabs Controversy". The Atlantic. 
  15. ^ Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (14 December 2010). "Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein's Response to the Letter Banning Sale of Homes to Gentiles in Israel". Kol HaRav - Rabbinic Voices. 
  16. ^ Yair Ettinger; Tomer Zarchin (10 December 2010). "Leading Rabbi Denounces Colleagues' Edict Against Renting Homes to non-Jews". Haaretz. 
  17. ^ Naomi Paiss (16 December 2010). "Nearly 1000 of World’s Rabbis Urge Israeli Colleagues to Reject Racist Religious Ruling" (Press release). New Israel Fund. 
  18. ^ Josh Nathan-Kazis (15 December 2010). "U.S. Rabbis Offer Rare Rebuke of Israeli Edict". The Forward. 
  19. ^ Marcy Oster (30 December 2010). "Female Israeli Reform rabbis speak out in favor of contact with Arabs". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 
  20. ^ Nashoni, Kobi (December 30, 2010). "Women Reform rabbis: Stop the hatred". Israel Jewish Scene. Retrieved December 31, 2010. 
  21. ^ Yair Altman (2 January 2011). "Intellectuals: Firing racist rabbis not enough". Ynetnews. 
  22. ^ Blomfield, Adrian (December 31, 2010). "Holocaust survivors warn of stirrings of neo-fascism". The Daily Telegraph. London. 
  23. ^ Mark Weiss (29 December 2010). "Rabbis' wives call on Jews not to date Arabs". The Telegraph. 
  24. ^ Gil Ronen (12 December 2010). "Bill Would Grant Rabbis Immunity Regarding Freedom of Speech". Arutz Sheva.