Middle East

Israeli orthodox rabbi stirs up racism debate

Houses in Tzfat or Safed
Image caption The old quarter of Tzfat or Safed, a holy city high up in the Galilee mountains

From a pine-covered mountaintop in the far north of Israel, the Sea of Galilee is just visible through the mist below.

This is the idyllic setting for Tzfat, as it is known in Hebrew, or Safed, as Arabic-speakers call it, a holy place for Jews. It is said to have been founded by a son of Noah after the great flood.

In the past few weeks it has also become famous for a decree made by its chief rabbi who instructed residents not to rent rooms or houses to Israeli Arabs.

In his little, stone house in the heart of the old city, I meet 89-year-old Eliyahu Zvieli. He moved here after fleeing the Nazis during the Second World War.

Now he has been condemned by the rabbi for renting part of his house to three Arab students.

"I went through the Holocaust," he says. "I know how much we suffered as Jews because of anti-semitism, so I cannot accept such an opinion."

Far from being cowed, the old man is angry.

"The rabbi's salary is paid by the state so when he expresses opinions like this it is like he spitting on the same plate that feeds him," he declares.

Threatening behaviour

One of Mr Zvieli's Arab tenants, Muhammad Hamoudi, was born in a nearby village and came to Tzfat to study nursing at the medical college.

The fact that he is an Israeli citizen means nothing to those who want him and his fellow students out.

Image caption Eliyahu Zvieli has received threats for renting Israeli Arab students including Muhammad Hamoudi

"People have called the house and threatened to attack, they said they would burn it down if we don't leave," he says.

In the past 10 years, Tzfat has seen a large influx of ultra-orthodox Jews many of whom believe that Jews and Arabs cannot, indeed must not, live together.

Shortly after the latest controversy began big, white posters started appearing all over the city.

One reads: "Don't rent rooms to Arabs. Don't give work to Arabs. Don't give Arabs any foothold in our community."

Most have now been taken down, but the man who inspired them is still the local chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliyahu. He is completely unrepentant.

While the chief rabbi refused repeated BBC requests for an interview, a fellow rabbi did agree to a meeting.

"The Bible tells us that Jews should not give a place to Gentiles. Israel is the land given to the Jews by God, anyone else is here as a guest," states David Lahiani.

Endangering secular state

The Israeli government has generally kept quiet about what many would consider a blatant case of racism against the country's Arab minority.

But minister for minorities, Avishai Bravermann, is an exception.

"We are in a battle against forces who do not accept the basic concept of liberal democracy," he tells me.

"They are endangering the state of Israel as a liberal democratic state."

With an extremely high birth-rate, Israel's ultra orthodox community is the youngest and fastest-growing segment of its Jewish population.

Their beliefs are a direct challenge to Israel's secular democracy and to the 20% of Israel's population that is Arab.

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