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Rabbis tell Israeli Jews not to rent to Arabs; even Holocaust museum frowns

The call from hundreds of rabbis on Jews not to rent or sell real estate to Arabs, a 20 percent minority, has sparked a heated debate over Israel's dual ideals of Judaism and democracy.

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"We know that the Jewish people, that knew suffering and persecution and experienced ostracism and the revocation of basic rights, has expressed its stance on matters such as these with voices different than those we have heard today with this [ruling]," said Yad Vashem, also on Thursday.

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How the letter began

The move to discourage transactions with Arabs began in October in the northern Israel city of Tzfat, where the chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliyahu, called on residents not to rent apartments to Arab students enrolled at a college in the city. That call was formalized into a religious ruling distributed among clerics in public positions.

Rabbinic signatories to the letter insisted that the legal opinion does not promote discrimination, but rather aims to protect Jews' hold on cities and the country from non-Jewish encroachment. They argued that in a case of a clash between the religious law and secular laws of the state, the former should prevail.

"I have a vision that there will be a Jewish state. There can be non-Jews and we need to treat them nicely, but we need to maintain a big Jewish majority,'' says Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a signatory who rejects allegations of racism. "We don't need to strengthen their hold on the land. It's not a secret that they want to annex our state. Just like America is for the Americans, England is for the English, I want the Jewish state to be for the Jews.''

Rabbi Yuval Sherlow, the head of a religious seminary, criticizes the letter, saying it reflects a drive to challenge Israel's secular democratic principles while emphasizing the religious character of the state. "One of the ways to do that is to isolate non-Jews.''

Only a limited number of prominent rabbis have come out against the letter.

Mining Jewish tradition

The theological debate is rooted in the vast canon of texts and rabbinic commentary that can be employed in support of both universalist and chauvinistic values, says Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, which promotes pluralistic Jewish thought in Israel.

"The job for Jewish spiritual leaders in Israel," he says, "is to mine Jewish tradition and find a stream of thought that will substantiate a modern Israeli Judaism that is worthy of a people with sovereignty and power rather than a helpless ghettoized people sustaining itself on fantasies of revenge against the Gentiles.''

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