02/16/2011 09:09 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Rabbis' Letter Challenging Israeli Democracy

Arabs are the largest minority in Israel, accounting for nearly a fifth of the population.
Though the country was established as a democracy, Israel's Arab citizens have been regularly discriminated against by the government, receiving much fewer resources than Jewish citizens.
Within the Israeli society, it is not rare to find Jews who relate to the Israeli Arabs as second class citizens, and some even consider them a fifth column.

Never-the-less, (most) Israeli Jews embrace democratic values and reject racism. Direct and public incitement against the Arab minority was not socially accepted or politically correct in the country's first six decades of existence. But recently, that has been changing.

In November 2010, dozens of leading Israeli rabbis -- including some who are employed by the state as municipal rabbis -- published the "Rabbis' Letter," a religious manifest calling for a ban on selling or leasing land to non-Jews (translated version of the manifest).

The "Rabbis' Letter" was followed by a wave of small but noisy anti-Arabs demonstrations, where protesters shouted racist slogans. Then, a second religious manifest, this time published by a group of wives of rabbis, called Jewish women to stay away from Arab men.
Labor party politician Isaac Herzog, who was Israel's Social Affairs Minister until he resigned last month, compared the recent outbreak of racial tensions in Israel to Alabama in the 1940s.

Following the events, I prepared this video report examining the "Rabbis' Letter," its affects and the circumstances which led to it:

The final interviewee in the video report, Professor Esther Webman (Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East Studies in Tel Aviv University), argues that the recent anti-Arab wave is derived from the growing number of Israeli Jews who believe that the Arabs' ideology is to eliminate Israel as a Jewish nation state.

But there are other arguments. Professor Daniel Gutwein (Jewish History Department in the University of Haifa) explains the recent anti-Arab wave as a class struggle that is happening as a result of the growing economic difficulties in Israel's lower classes:

According to Professor Gutwein, the people who signed the "Rabbis' Letter" and those who support them, have strayed away from the original Zionist idea, which is that Israel will be a homeland for the Jewish people while also being a democratic state to all its citizens. He says there is no contradiction between Jewish and democratic values.

The struggle to maintain a unique national identity without compromising the minority's democratic rights is one that not only Israel faces. Recently, a public debate on this issue arose across European countries, such as Germany, England and France. Douglas J. Feith, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute (who served as the U.S. Under-Secretary of Defense from 2001 to 2005), points out that on the issue of preserving national identity, there is a big difference between the "New-Settlements" democracies to the democracies in Europe and East Asia (Wall Street Journal, October 2010):

"The United States is unusual in this regard. It is among the most liberal of democracies, in the sense that it is committed to the principle that laws should, in general, ignore group identities (ethnic, religious or regional) and treat citizens equally as individuals. Canada, Australia and New Zealand -- likewise lands of new settlement -- are among the other countries on this liberal end of the democratic spectrum.

The democracies of Europe and East Asia and those in the former republics of the Soviet Union, meanwhile, tend to cluster on the ethnic side of the spectrum. Numerous laws and institutions in those nations favor a country's principal ethnic group but are nevertheless accepted as compatible with democratic principles. Christian crosses adorn the flags of Switzerland, Sweden, Greece and Finland, among other model democracies, and the United Kingdom's flag boasts two kinds of crosses."


Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, Chief Rabbi of the city Zefat, initiator of the "Rabbis' Letter"

The Israeli democracy is similar to the European democracies in that it favors one ethnic group. Due to the ongoing Middle East conflict, the relations between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs are even more tense and unstable than the relations between majorities and minorities in Europe's multicultural societies. But according to rabbi and scholar Donniel Hartman Israel can and should preserve its Jewish character while also providing a sense of belonging to its non-Jewish citizens.

Rabbi Dr. Hartman suggests creating a broader Israeli narrative, one that will be accepted by all Israeli citizens (Haaretz, December 2007):

"We Israeli Jews have to understand that Israel, as a Jewish and democratic state with both Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, must have multiple narratives that inform its national identity. There must be a Jewish narrative and a broader Israeli narrative that creates a collective space with bonds of loyalty toward citizens of the State of Israel who are either non-Jews or for whom the state's Jewishness is not the central feature of their national self-understanding."

The "Rabbis' Letter" Controversy, Wikipedia
Israel's intolerance shows up everywhere, L.A. Times, January 2011
Deteriorating conditions for Israeli Arabs, Al Jazeerah, July 2010
44% of Israelis support "Rabbis' Letter", Haaretz, December 2010