Stand up to extremists, especially our own

First, Jewish Leadership Council chief executive Mick Davis argues that Israel risks becoming an apartheid state. Communal uproar follows. Then along comes the news that 39 Israeli rabbis signed an edict forbidding Jews from renting property to non-Jews. Did anyone else detect a touch of irony here?

Now, an apparently racist ruling by a group of clerics does not an apartheid state make, but it is a clear signal that all is not well when it comes to Israel's relationship with its minorities. It is surely this issue that we should have been discussing following Mr Davis's statements, without allowing his arguably inappropriate choice of adjectives to turn the debate into an emotional confrontation revolving solipsistically around Anglo-Jewish leadership.

So let's keep to the tenor of the debate, and stay calm. For one thing, Israel's attorney general is currently looking into bringing charges of incitement to racial hatred. Not the actions of a state sliding towards apartheid. And it was not racism that prevented Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu - who made a statement condemning the ruling - from applying any sanction against the state-employed rabbis. It was democracy. Mr Netanyahu cannot afford to further endanger his relations with the religious right members of his coalition, who are currently threatening to leave over a law that enables the state to bypass the Chief Rabbinate's authority over conversions in the IDF. Israeli leaders recognise there is a problem here - the president, the education minister and a number of important religious leaders also spoke out against the ruling - but appear to be unable to take any meaningful action to stop it happening again.

Israel's relationship with its large Arab minority is a complicated blend of integration, interdependence and antagonism. Take Safed, the town where this latest round of racist baiting began. Its university, under the supervision of Bar-Ilan, has admitted so many Arabs that they now make up 70 per cent of the student population, a positive sign for intercultural relations. And even though it was the reaction of the town's chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliyahu, to growing Arab demand for accommodation in Safed that inspired the anti-Arab edict, Fadi Abu Younes, the former chairman of the National Arab Students' Union, says the views of Rabbi Eliyahu and his followers are the minority.

Inequalities will rip Israel apart from the inside out

But the paradox is there for all to see: in Safed, deep distrust sits alongside co-operation. It wasn't a direct confrontation that caused Rabbi Eliyahu to rule that Jewish flat-owners should not rent lodgings to Arab students. His move was based on both his interpretation of halachah and his fear that the students could bring violence and disrupt the Jewish character of the town.

A survey carried out by Ynet this month revealed that 55 per cent of the general population of Israel backed the edict, while among the religious, the figure was 66 per cent. Based on just this information, we can comfortably predict that wherever a growing Arab population and a growing religious Jewish population compete for the same resources, there is likely to be conflict.

A number of regional councils in Israel seem to have made exactly that prognosis. Their solution is to publish admission guidelines to "preserve their Jewish and Zionist character". In the long term, it is hard to see how this will enable the two groups to live alongside each other in peace.

This year, tension has risen across Israel. There was a second round of race riots in Umm al-Fahm in October, involving a march by extreme-right activists which Avishay Braverman, Israel's Minister for Minority Affairs, called a "destructive and dangerous provocation aimed at inciting against the town's Arab residents". In Lod, a new 3m-high wall was completed, dividing an Arab suburb from a Jewish village in a neighbouring municipality. Also in October, in Beit Fajar, a mosque was torched by religious settlers as part of a "tit for tat" policy to exact revenge on the government for evacuations.

Mohammad Darawshe of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, says, "This year has been one of the worst for Arab-Jewish relations in a decade that is the worst in 40 years".

Israel, as its declaration of independence states, is founded on the principle of "complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex". We must battle to uphold this value because the kind of inequality we are seeing today can rip Israel apart from the inside without any of its external enemies making a move.

This means speaking out against the extreme elements in our world, just as we expect other societies to clamp down on hate directed against us. This may be a tough benchmark to apply to a still-young state that is surrounded by hostile groups who define themselves in relation to their hatred of it. The very fact that we hold such a standard to the one we love is no less than a demonstration of our attachment - that is the way it is in Jewish families.

    Last updated: 2:47pm, December 23 2010