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October 7, 2015 / 24 Tishri, 5776
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Can Rabbis Save The Jewish State?

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Israel is a Jewish country – but can it continue to be so when Judaism threatens to destroy the state?

The unfair longstanding attacks on Israel’s legitimacy are a permanent stain on the international community. For over 60 years, Israel has valiantly grown under hostile conditions while fighting lies and half-truths in the international arena. Israel suffers doubly, however, when its very essence, its Jewish character, supports its opponents’ narrative.

With this in mind, we must reluctantly examine the damage inflicted by a recent rabbinic pronouncement.

Over the past weeks, many rabbis in Israel have publicized halachic rulings forbidding Jews to rent or sell homes to non-Jews. Doing so, they argue, violates Torah prohibitions and causes the deterioration of Jewish neighborhoods. Jews move away from communities when gentiles – in this case, Arabs – move in, leaving neighborhoods and cities transitioning from Jewish to gentile majorities. This is halachically, socially and nationalistically unacceptable. To prevent this, the rabbis insist, Jews must refrain from renting or selling homes to non-Jews.

The halachic basis of these pronouncements is complex and debatable. In theory, gentiles living in Israel have the option of becoming a ger toshav (resident alien) and acquiring full citizen rights under the Torah (as opposed to Israeli citizenship, which is entirely different).

However, according to many authorities, technical reasons prevent anyone from becoming a ger toshav today. Others hold that these technical reasons can be bypassed. If authorities rule strictly, they create a dilemma for gentiles in Israel today. These Israeli citizens cannot rent or buy homes because they are not gerei toshav – but due to no fault of their own they can never attain that status. What are they to do?

The problem is that even discussing this issue in anything other than a theoretical context damages Israel on multiple levels. Yes, the halachic issues are worthy of serious exploration. But they must be seen as hilchisa dimeshicha, rules that will become relevant only in a messianic world. Any other perspective amounts to discrimination, an attitude that supports Israel’s opponents, drives even more American Jews away from supporting Israel and cools the enthusiasm of many of Israel’s unquestioning supporters.

Who can defend such blatant unfairness? Particularly to Americans, such discrimination is distasteful and embarrassing.

Writing in British Palestine, Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog argued that a Jewish state must give gentiles full rights, even if it requires adopting minority halachic views, because anything else will deter international support. He was right then and remains correct today.

The favored tactic of Israel’s current opponents is denouncing it as an apartheid state. Supporters of Israel struggle to explain to an unreceptive public that Israel’s policies may appear discriminatory but are really based on security concerns. This is an uphill battle that we are losing, along with an increasing portion of unconvinced Jewish youth. When Israeli rabbis declare that Judaism is unabashedly discriminatory against gentiles, they inadvertently push away international support the country desperately needs. They provide ammunition to their enemies, drive away potential supporters and, perhaps most importantly, alienate their most ardent supporters.

I write this with trembling and tears because I revere the rabbis I am discussing. I am not contradicting or belittling them, but imploring them to take greater account of perspectives across the ocean. The problems they identify are real but Judaism offers other options that are not discriminatory and are therefore more attractive to the general public.

There are other ways to maintain Jewish neighborhoods. Instead of excluding gentiles, we can speak of integrated neighborhoods where Jewish culture is safeguarded. If safety is a concern, we need not exclude all non-Jews but only those people, Jewish or gentile, who cause trouble. From across the ocean, we wonder why rabbis only issue declarations against renting or selling to gentiles, and not against renting to non-religious or violently religious Jews. Of course, we bear a special bond to our coreligionists, but that does not adequately answer the question. The solutions sought in dealing with religious neighborhoods that deteriorate due to the infusion of unsavory Jewish elements should be applied to unsavory gentiles as well.

We fully support Israel and its rabbis. We implore its rabbis to help us grow this support and teach a new generation about the beauty of Judaism and the Jewish state.

Rabbi Gil Student is the managing editor of OU Press and blogs at TorahMusings.com

About the Author: Rabbi Gil Student writes frequently on Jewish issues and serves as editor-in-chief of TorahMusings.com. Rabbi Student previously served as managing editor of OU Press and still maintains a connection to the publisher but did not work on this book in any way.

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