An Israeli activist protesting Shmuel Eliyahu’s edict holds a sign reading “Jewish and Arab solidarity for justice and equality” during a demonstration in Jerusalem last week. (Oren Ziv/ActiveStills)

Early last week, more than three dozen state-paid municipal rabbis signed and
an edict that calls for Jews not to sell or rent property to gentiles in Israel. In response, a coalition of strange bedfellows has decried the move: Israeli civil rights organizations, Arab leaders, Holocaust survivors, right-wing politicians, and some of Israel’s most prominent ultra-Orthodox figures. By Thursday, Israeli government took the first steps toward a possible criminal investigation of the rabbis for what Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein termed “very problematic” statements.

The leading figure behind the halakhic ruling is Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi in the northern city of Safed. Eliyahu began agitating against renting to Arabs in Safed in October with a 400-participant conference titled “Quiet War: Combating Assimilation in the Holy City of Safed.”

Since then, Eliyahu has drummed up support among dozens of rabbis across Israel to condemn real estate deals with non-Jews. His ruling cites the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy to call on Jews not to sell or rent to gentiles to prevent intermarriage and to protect Jews from “sinful influence.” But Eliyahu’s arguments aren’t all biblical: The edict also notes that “following the sale or rental of one apartment, the price of all the neighboring apartments declines even when the buyers or tenants are nice at first.”

Signatories include the chief rabbis of Eilat, Bat Yam, Holon, Dimona, Ashdod, Maaleh Adumim, and Meitar—a mix of religious and secular cities, and almost a third of Israel’s 126 municipal rabbis, who are appointed by councils made of local rabbis, synagogue leaders, and representatives from the municipal religious council. These rabbis receive their salary from their municipalities, which in turn are funded by the Ministry of the Interior and by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. According to David Rosen, an Israeli rabbi based in Jerusalem who works on interfaith dialogue for the American Jewish Committee, these rabbis supervise kashrut, register marriages, appoint local rabbis, and preside over the local beit din, or religious court.

In an interview Sunday evening with Israel’s Channel 2 News, Eliyahu appeared in a white dress shirt, a wide white yarmulke, and frameless spectacles. Asked about comparisons to the Nuremberg Laws, which included a prohibition against renting to Jews, Eliyahu explained that Israel’s Arabs aim “to flood Israel with Arab refugees.”

“No Jew said he wanted to throw the Germans into the sea,” Eliyahu said. “But the Arabs have been declaring for 70 years that this is their goal.”

Mordechai Negari, the rabbi for the settlement of Maale Adumim, said he signed the letter because Eliyahu “is fighting the holy war on behalf of our daughters.” He continued: “We must keep our Jewish identity. You know the percentage of intermarriage in America? Eighty percent. This is what we need in Israel?”

Eliyahu’s Safed is a mostly Jewish city of 30,000, and it is one of the four holy cities in Israel, along with Jerusalem, Hebron, and Tiberias. It is also home to Safed College, where 550 of the 2,600 students are Arab, according to a college spokesman. Those Arab students come from neighboring Druze, Christian, Muslim, and Circassian villages, and those who live far away rent apartments and rooms in Safed. The spokesman said that in response to Eliyahu’s call, Safed College is trying to find space in the dorms, which house 130 students, and that the student union helps Arab students find apartments.

Meanwhile, much of the media attention has been focused on Eli Tzvieli, an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor who has lived in Safed for 60 years and happens to live next door to Eliyahu. Over the summer, Tzvieli rented rooms in his apartment to three Arab students of the Safed College, which is within walking distance of his home. But Tzvieli soon realized he got more than he bargained for. His neighbor, the rabbi, visited and offered to buy out the students’ lease so they would leave. Tzvieli refused. Tzvieli said he began getting phone calls and even an anonymous threat to burn down his building. Someone posted placards on his door accusing him of “returning the Arabs” to Safed, in reference to the 12,000 Arab residents, including the family of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who left the city in Israel’s 1948 War for Independence.

“I see them as people,” Tzvieli said of his tenants. “They are residents of Israel; they don’t do anything against the state. They are nice boys. If I can help them with their studies, I will.”

Tzvieli is hardly alone in rejecting the edict. In a statement released last week, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum condemned the rabbis’ letter as “a serious blow to the fundamental values of our lives as Jews and people in a democratic state.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also condemned the ruling last week in Jerusalem. “How would we feel if someone would say not to sell an apartment to Jews?” he said. “We would be outraged. These things cannot happen, not to Jews and not to Arabs.”

Two prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis who Rosen termed “the nonagenarian chief honchos of ultra-Orthodoxy,” are also rumored to be against the edict. Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, a leading ultra-Orthodox posek, or arbiter of Jewish law, reportedly said of Eliyahu and his supporters, “There are rabbis who must have their pens taken away from them.” Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, another prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi, also did not sign the letter, and as a result, some of the signatories are backpedaling. At the same time, hundreds of other rabbis are also signing on. In a similar spirit, Lehava, an anti-assimilation organization, set up a hotline last week for callers to snitch on people who rent or sell property to Arabs, so that their names can be made public.

Eliyahu is unapologetic. “The rabbi will continue to serve his loyal public and to help the people of Israel, wherever they may be, to continue to help in the process of returning to Zion,” Eliyahu’s aide, Mor Dahan, said. “The base of the state of Israel is to build a Jewish house for the people of Israel in the land of Israel.”

The edict is a small part of a larger widening gulf between Israel’s 20-percent Arab population and its Jews, highlighted by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s proposal to redraw the borders of Israel around an exchange of Jewish settlements in the West Bank for major Arab cities like Umm el Fahem. The increasing tension was highlighted last May when Haneen Zoabi, a member of the Arab Balad party, joined the Mavi Marmara, which was bound for Gaza despite an Israeli blockade.

In Safed, Arab students say it has gotten more difficult to find apartments since Eliyahu began his campaign. Mohamed Ganaim, a 22-year-old law student from the nearby Arab town of Sakhnin, said religious Israeli students at Safed College began demonstrating after Eliyahu announced his edict.

“They said ‘death to the Arabs’ and started throwing stones at the Arab students’ houses,” Ganaim said.

Ganaim moved to Safed last year and said he never used to have a problem with his Jewish neighbors. In fact, he said, religious Jews often asked Arab neighbors to turn their lights on and off on the Sabbath, when it is forbidden for Jews to work.

Tzvieli said he will continue to rent to Arabs above the protests of his vocal neighbor. “This is already a matter of principle,” he said. “I think it is forbidden for us to create a rift between ourselves and the Arab population. It’s not human, and it isn’t appropriate to Judaism at all.”

Daniella Cheslow is a freelance writer and photographer based in Jerusalem.