Why Jews in Israel can sell property to Arabs

Interpretation of a biblical law lies behind the controversy that erupted in Israel last month

By Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, January 20, 2011
Rabbis speak in favour of a ban on selling land to non-Jews at a rally in Israel last month

Rabbis speak in favour of a ban on selling land to non-Jews at a rally in Israel last month

The day before the new au pair arrived, my father took me aside. "Gideon, be kind to her," he said, "for remember, you were once a stranger in the Land of Egypt." I was only five years old at the time, and I was bewildered by his words, but from his tone, I understood that his message was urgent. I was growing up in the shadows of the Holocaust and he was giving me my first lesson in tolerance and the importance of kindness to strangers.

In England, these ideas were normative and ever present, so it came as a profound shock to hear a group of Israeli municipal rabbis declare that: "There is a biblical prohibition against selling a house or field in the Land of Israel to a gentile" and that anyone who broke the ban should be ostracised.

The rabbis instructed: "The neighbours and acquaintances of the seller or renter should warn him privately at first, but afterwards, they have the right to publicise this and to distance themselves from him, refrain from doing business with him, deny him the right to read from the Torah, and similarly ostracise him until he goes back on this harmful deed." What was the basis for this pronouncement?

Just before Moses died, he prepared the Israelites for their conquest of the Land of Israel, warning them that they faced an implacable enemies: the seven idolatrous nations who inhabited the land. Following his description of the campaign that would take place against them, Moses commanded the people: "You shall make no covenant with them, nor give them a dwelling place" (Deuteronomy 7: 4). The question which has exercised rabbis ever since is to whom does this prohibition apply?

The rabbis behind this ban on sales and rental of properties to Arabs applied the biblical command to all non-Jews. Not everyone agreed. My rosh yeshivah, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, poured scorn on this simplistic interpretation which ignored a myriad of classic interpretations and brought shame upon those working to create harmony in Israel.

Alternative readings within mainstream Jewish tradition include that of the Ra'avad (1125-1198), who argued from the context of this passage that this biblical prohibition refers only to the seven nations who inhabited the land at the time of the Israelite conquest. These nations no longer exist and therefore the law is no longer applicable.

Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249-1310) argued that there are laws which still apply to idolaters, but he also recognised that people of monotheistic faiths are "restrained by the ways of religion" which establish and enforce ethical rules on their adherents. In his Talmud commentary, he argues that members of monotheistic religions are thereby distinguished from the barbaric idolaters of biblical times and excluded from the harsh laws which apply to them.

Rabbi Isaac Herzog, who was Chief Rabbi of Israel at its creation, was keen to establish a constitution based on the values of Jewish law. Recognising that minority rights would be an important issue for the nascent state, he took great interest in the subject and wrote extensively on it. Reiterating the decisions of his predecessor Rav Kook, he ruled categorically that Muslims are monotheists who are entitled to buy homes in the Land of Israel and to live in them.

Furthermore, he argued that Israel's Declaration of Independence, which declares that "it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex", constitutes a halachically binding commitment by the Jewish people to the nations of the world.

Rabbi Herzog's points were brought home to me when I worked as an adviser to the Israeli government. Each week, I looked forward to our weekly policy discussions. My minister, Rabbi Michael Melchior, had a wide range of advisers including rabbis, secular Jews and representatives from the Arab sector.

The discussions were vibrant and everyone had a chance to speak. Coming to them with my staunch religious Zionist beliefs and sacred agenda of advancing the interests of the religious community in Israel, I was shocked to discover that not everyone shared my path. Gradually, the message seeped in. I was no longer rabbi of an Orthodox community, but part of a democratic government running a country.

This sense of national responsibility has led leading rabbis in Israel to argue that while Israel must retain its strong Jewish character, it has a diverse population, 20 per cent of whom are Arabs. The state must fulfil its responsibilities to all its citizens; otherwise it has no right to call itself a democracy.

The state of Israel faces real demographic challenges. It is hard to maintain a Jewish state if our towns and villages are dominated by people of other faiths. But racist policies are not the way forward. Such an approach is immoral, unrealistic and unbefitting the Jewish people, whose mission is to build a society based on compassionate righteousness. We will have to find better solutions if we want to retain a democratic Jewish state.

Gideon Sylvester is rabbi of the United Synagogue's Tribe Israel

Last updated: 10:44am, January 20 2011