by Peggy Cidor

For the last few weeks, Israelis have been busy arguing for and against the call issued by a number of rabbis throughout the country, led by Tzfat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Eliyahu, who decreed that rabbinical law forbids renting or selling properties to non-Jews, particularly Arabs. This is added to rabbis having declared that the drought and lack of rainfall is a result of the lack of observance of Jewish law and commandments, just as they attributed the Carmel Forest fire to desecration of Shabbat. Likewise, many of these rabbis have been engaged in questioning the validity of conversions conducted by the I.D.F., and other issues in the realm of the ongoing clash between religion and state.

Strong opposition was immediately expressed across the country, against what was considered a threatening racist attitude. However, most of it came from the political left, perceived for the most part as distant from Jewish issues anyway.

“We felt that genuine and strong opposition to these dangerous trends had to first be voiced from a Jewish approach, explained Meir Yoffe, Executive Director of “Panim for Jewish Renaissance in Israel” an organization engaged in expressing modern Jewish thought in Israel.

For the thousands of Israelis who have studied for the last 20 years, and continue to study in the numerous pluralistic Batei Midrash spread across Israel, what could be more natural than to raise the warning flag – to refuse to let Judaism become prisoner to racism and xenophobia. Since the advent some 20 years ago of this phenomenon, considered by many, as a genuine Jewish renaissance of secular and religious Israelis learning for the sake of Torah learning, meeting from north to south throughout Israel, something has changed: Judaism and Jewish outlooks have become not only pluralistic and inclusive, but also engaged, involved. They strive to express concern for a better society, in the context of Jewish ethics and morality.

Elul, Alma, Bina, Kolot, Bamidbar, Oranim, etc. are all members of the Israeli Batei Midrash Network – Reshet – wishing to bring a humanistic, open, pluralistic Judaism, free of internal divisions and prejudiced opinions to Israeli society. Through shared love for the Texts – the Bible, the Mishna and the Gemara, through love for the wisdom of the sages of the Talmud – a new approach to Jewish roots and modern Judaism, egalitarian and open for all has developed here. The women and the men who studied and still attend the classrooms at Elul, and so many more, are Jews and Israelis who are proud of their roots and reject the fear and the disdain of others – believing that all mankind are equal and worthy of respect.

“These last days and weeks, we have been facing, wave after wave of hatred, racism, and many other disgracing phenomenon in the name of Judaism” says Roni Yavin, Executive Director of Elul, the pioneer pluralistic Beit Midrash, created 21 years ago. “I feel that it just can’t go on like this without any response on our part,” continues Yavin. “Beyond the question of whether the Prime Minister or the Minister of Education could or should react to these demeaning statements, we are at a stage where a pluralistic Beit Midrash has to be more than just a venue for studying. Studying is our primary quest, but we are not studying here just for intellectual enrichment – it is obviously much more than that. We are in fact creating a new Jewish voice on the ground. We have something to say on each and every issue that touches our life here – social issues, like the last one at stake – people in Israel and abroad have to hear our distinct voice.” Yavin adds that the situation that motivated Yoffe and the Shalom Hartman Institute, with her and most of the directors of the numerous Batei Midrash across the country was not only the Rabbis letter – “there is a feeling that we are attacked by wave after wave of racism, of hatred so foreign to the real essence of Judaism as we understand it, and thus it is essential to enable Israelis and our fellow Jews abroad to hear another voice.”

As a result of the situation, a decision was made to publish an ad in the Hebrew press, “Reject racism in the name of Judaism.”

It is important to note that not all liked the somewhat assertive language of the message – but nevertheless, the common feeling was that something had to be said loud and clear – that there are Israelis and Jews who are close – each one in his own way – to the Holy scriptures and sources of our Jewish heritage, and yet believe that all men and women are equal and deserve to be treated with respect. After all, isn’t that exactly what our sages teach us in the Talmud?

Peggy Cidor is a writer for The Jerusalem Post and a participant at the central Beit Midrash, Elul, Jerusalem.

The following are signatories to the “Reject racism in the name of Judaism” advertisement that appeared in the Hebrew media:

Panim for Jewish Renaissance in Israel, The Shalom Hartman Institute, Achvah B’Kerem, Alma, Atid Bamidbar, Beit Midrash Elul, Beit Tefilah Israeli, Bema’aglei Tzedek, Bina, Galilee Foundation for Values Education, Hame’orer, Hamelitz, Hamidrasha at Oranim, Hanaton Education Center, Havaya, Hebrew Union College, Hinuch Israeli, Hitorerut B’Yerushalayim, IRAC, Itim, Kehilah, Kneset HaRabanim, Kolech, Kolot, Ma’agal Tov, Marag, Meitarim, Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, Network of Batei Midrash, Network of Jewish Renaissance Communities, Rikma, Shiluv, Shitim, Shomrei Mishpat – Rabbis for Human Rights, The Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel, The Movement for Progressive Judaism (Reform), The Yaakov Herzog Center, Tmurah, Yachad Modiin, Yahalom, Yod Bet B’Heshvan, Yuvalim Center in the Galilee, Zayit-Jewish Cultural Identity