Israel: Rabbis on public payroll court controversy

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TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel’s holy men have long had a reputation for an approach toward the society around them that is, shall we say, considerably less conciliatory and compassionate than the Dalai Lama.

Lately the country’s rabbis appear to be taking it to a new grade of nastiness.

A judge on the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court, Dov Domb, joined other rabbis this week in signing an open letter urging sanctions against people in the largely ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak who rent apartments to foreigners.

It isn’t that Israelis are so shocked by the idea that a rabbi would hold conservative ideas. After all, one of the country’s most prominent rabbis, the Shas Party’s spiritual leader, Ovadia Yossef, once told his followers a man shouldn’t walk in between two women for fear of being turned into a donkey. Rather it’s the expression of such ideas by a man who is on the public payroll that has awakened controversy.

In fact there have been a series of recent cases of rabbis who are also public employees speaking out — perhaps lashing out is a better way to put it — on social and political issues.

The chief rabbi of Safed signed a letter this summer in which he and 17 other rabbis urged residents of the town in the Galilee region of northern Israel to not rent apartments to Arabs. The letter stated that non-Jews “intrude into our lives to the point of endangering them.”

In Kiryat Motzkin, a suburb of Haifa, the chief rabbi there last month told a conference of right-wingers and rabbis that Arabs should be chased out of Upper Nazareth, a relatively new town built near the historic city of Nazareth where Jesus was raised.

“The Arabs must feel as if the Jews have gone mad and it’s impossible to live with them,” Rabbi David Meir Druckman said.

Perhaps it isn’t only the Arabs who might think the Jews have gone mad.

Another two rabbis are under police investigation for a recent book that appears to discuss conditions under which religious Jewish law allows for the killing of non-Jews.

Israel’s municipal rabbis and Rabbinical Courts have considerable power in a country where marriage and family law is in the hands of the religious authorities. There’s no such thing as civil marriage here. Divorces are handled by rabbis whose perception of a woman’s role is not always so modern.

Domb’s letter is a good example of the kinds of things that can occur when court decisions are made on the basis of religious texts, rather than legal writ and individual rights.

Since May, police have been investigating a case on which he was one of the presiding judges in 2007. A mentally disabled woman was given papers to sign and told they were application forms for public housing. They turned out to be divorce papers. Her father-in-law, who wanted his son’s marriage ended, turned out to be related to Domb by marriage. Domb and the other judges in the case granted the divorce in a single day.

Officials at the Israeli Justice Ministry said they would investigate Domb’s signature on the anti-foreigner letter only if an official complaint is made.

However, Domb appears to be tapping into a regrettable theme in Israel today. The municipal council in Pardes Katz, the Bnei Brak neighborhood to which his letter referred, last week passed a resolution to pressure landlords not to rent to foreigners.

Of course, the foreign workers aren’t exactly living the good life at the expense of the people of Pardes Katz. More than half the 200,000 foreigners working in Israel are illegal migrants. They receive less than $3 an hour in pay. They’re subject to deportation sometimes within 48 hours of being picked up by the police.

Residents of southern Tel Aviv, where large numbers of African and Asian migrant workers live, staged a protest Tuesday urging that the foreigners be expelled from their neighborhoods.

“At the city council they call me a racist,” said Shlomo Maslawi, a local city councilman. “If those bleeding hearts lived here and their children and grandchildren lived here, they’d be behaving differently.”