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By **Juan Cole**


CNN reports on racist letters emanating from ultra-orthodox rabbis or their wives in Israel. Thirty wives of rabbis called on Jewish-Israeli women not to marry Palestinian-Israeli men, alleging that they would universally be subjected to physical abuse. The incident follows an earlier one in which rabbis urged Jewish-Israelis not to rent to Palestinian-Israelis (can you say “racial covenant”?)

The letters also follow on a demonstration in Bat Yam against Jewish-Israeli girls dating Palestinian-Israeli men.

Inter-faith marriage is frowned on by religious Israelis, and there was criticism in Israel of Chelsea Clinton’s wedding.

Israel, like Lebanon and some Muslim countries, for the most part makes no provision for civil marriage, requiring individuals to marry within the religious law of their sect. Israel’s rabbinate opposes civil marriage in part out of fear it would encourage inter-faith marriage. At the moment, couples of different faith heritages in Israel must go to Cyprus or elsewhere abroad to marry, and have the marriage recognized on their return. Such a marriage cannot be performed in Israel itself.

The recent racist calls and demonstrations were condemned on Wednesday by the Israeli Labor Party. Party head and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak issued a statement saying, “The Labor Party under my leadership is active in bringing together the various groups of Israel’s citizens, in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.” Labor only has nineteen seats in the one-hundred twenty seat Knesset or Israeli parliament. Conservative rabbis also condemned the racist calls, but it should be noted that Orthodox Judaism has legal supremacy in Israel and so the Conservatives are not very powerful there.

A recent poll showed that 44 percent of Jewish-Israelis support the rabbis’ call not to rent or sell land to Palestinian-Israelis, while 48 percent oppose it. Some prominent Israeli politicians, such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, have called for Palestinian-Israelis somehow to be stripped of their Israeli nationality altogether. Denaturalization — taking someone’s citizenship rights away from them- is a serious human rights abuse.

That said, there is plenty of racism in the Arab world, and apologists for the growing ranks of Israeli racists have to decide if their defense really is going to be that Abu Ahmed in Zarqa, Jordan, feels the same way.

You wonder if 44 percent of Israelis have ever seen the classic film, Gentleman’s Agreement, about a sad time in the U.S. when Jews were not allowed to stay in “restricted” hotels and, of course, covenants restricting their ability to buy homes in many neighborhoods were all too common.

…the lines about “same flesh as yours” and “don’t treat me to any more lessons of tolerance —I’m sick of it!”

Note that the ultra-Orthodox calls for discrimination concern Israeli citizens of Palestinian heritage, some 23 percent of the Israeli population. They cannot be compared to laws in the Arab world forbidding foreigners, including Israelis, from owning real property. The actual analogy would be to a country like Morocco, which has a Jewish minority, and where Moroccan Jews can freely buy and sell land. That said, there is plenty of racism in the Arab world, and apologists for the growing ranks of Israeli racists have to decide if their defense really is going to be that Abu Ahmed in Zarqa, Jordan, feels the same way. As we all should have learned in kindergarten, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Copyright 2010 Juan Cole


Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan and director of its Center for South Asian Studies. He maintains the blog Informed Comment. His most recent book is Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

This post originally appeared at JuanCole.Com.

To read blog entries from Juan Cole and others at GUERNICA, click HERE .


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One Comment on “Juan Cole: Racist Letters Roil Israel

  1. Where has Juan Cole been? Why is it only now he has discovered racism in the Middle East?

    For decades, Arab state sponsored racism and bigotry has been the hallmark of anti Israel and anti Semitic sentiment in the region. This hatred is featured on a regular base in media, school curricula and often preached from pulpits. Where are Mr Cole’s expressions of outrage?

    Why isn’t Mr Cole concerned with the religious bigotry expressed by Muslim clerics- far more egregious, vicious and visceral. By comparison, a simple letter ought to be barely visible the radar of anyone who is really concerned about racism.

    Further, Mr Cole conveniently forgets to mention that there has been a huge outcry against those rabbis who declared Jews were prohibited from renting property to Arabs. Rabbis in Israel and abroad have publicly repudiated and excoriated those responsible for that edict. Perhaps Mr Cole might consider a paltry few words directed at those religious authorities for whom anti Jewish sentiment is as common as the sunrise.

    Lastly, given Mr Cole’s apparent concern for religious tolerance, I eagerly await an equally relevant essay on the treatment of Jews in Arab nations.

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