I was raised in the Wynnefield neighborhood of Philadelphia. As a child, I recall that very few neighbors were not Jewish. There were at least six synagogues, a day school, a Jewish War Veterans Post, a folk shul and many stores that catered to the overwhelmingly Jewish population.
In 1964, ours was the first family on our block to sell to an African-American family. Realtors were already sowing the seeds of panic about the dangers of a changing neighborhood. My family did not leave Wynnefield; we simply moved to a larger home. Other Jewish families were outraged that Jewish families would sell to African-Americans.
Today, little is left of the once-thriving Jewish community in my childhood neighborhood. It may seem sad that so many urban Jewish communities no longer exist. On the other hand, Jews now live in suburban areas where they were once shunned. There are few places today where Jews are excluded.
American Jews were at the forefront of the American civil-rights movement. Our religion demands that we fight prejudice and provide for the weak of all peoples.
For this reason, I was deeply shocked and appalled to read of the recent edict signed by scores of Israeli rabbis forbidding the rental or sale of homes or apartments to non-Jews (read: Arabs). Only a short time earlier, the revered former chief rabbi of Israel, Rav Ovadia Yosef, stated: "Goyim were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world — only to serve the People of Israel."
Now a letter has been issued by 27 rebbetzins (wives of Israeli rabbis) calling upon Jewish women not to work in places where Arabs are employed and not to volunteer for national service with them. The letter indicates that Arab men will act nicely, but once they have you in their clutches, their behavior "will turn into curses, beatings and humiliations." Just imagine if European religious leaders were to say this about citizens having contact with Jews.
Lest the rabbinic edict be understood as anything but a deep lack of intolerance for the other, it goes on to state, "People should distance themselves from ones who would sell or rent to gentiles, not to do business with them, not to give them an aliyah to the Torah, etc., until they repent from causing this great damage. Those who listen to us will dwell securely, Amen, may it be His will."
How could these rabbis so deeply misunderstand Jewish tradition and bring about a Hillul Hashem (a desecration of God's name) — a violation of a biblical command in and of itself, which desecrates God's name in the eyes of the world.
Were these not similar to orders given to the German people by a regime that viewed Jews as sub-human? Has our history not been of a people forced to wander as our host countries spewed us out? Have we not learned from that fate?
Rabbis from around the globe, of all denominations, rushed to condemn this shameful misinterpretation of Jewish law. In Israel, more than 70 Masorti (Conservative) rabbis signed a rabbinic responsum allowing sales to non-Jews.
The responsum, authored by Rabbi David Golinkin, points out: "There is no question that such discrimination against non-Jews in Israel could lead to increased attacks against Jews in Israel and the Diaspora and to refusal to rent or sell homes to Jews in the Diaspora."
It also recalls the famous story in the Talmud about a convert who came to Hillel and asked to convert on condition that Hillel would teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel replied: "What is hateful to you do not do to others, this is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary, go and learn."
Israel is a democracy that guaranties equal rights to all of its citizens, and forbids racism or incitement to racism. Theodore Herzl did not see Zionism ending with the establishment of a political entity — a national homeland for the Jewish people. He called for those who would come to live in that state to work to create a vision of Zionism that would reflect the most basic ethical values of our tradition.
So many of our Diaspora Jewish youth find themselves distanced from Israel and view Zionism as alien. The very rabbis who promote a racist vision (and not all who signed are necessarily guilty of racism) serve to further alienate our young people.
These rabbis, many of whom are employed by the state, violate laws that prohibit civil servants from advocating political positions, and even worse, they violate laws prohibiting incitement.
Those who incite violence must be called to justice by the police and answer to the judiciary.
The racist outbursts caused me to feel shame. This rabbinic ruling, and the subsequent "Rebbetzin Letter" are ethically abhorrent and a perversion of Jewish law. Our rabbis must bring glory to our wonderful Jewish tradition and to the State of Israel; thus, we can serve as "a light unto the nations."
Rabbi Andrew M. Sacks is director of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel. He will be speaking on Monday, Jan. 17, at Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, where he once served as the rabbi.