The upcoming elections for the Chief Rabbinate have been couched as a last stand struggle to return this institution into the hands of the Religious Zionist camp. A Sephardi candidate in this effort, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, has been challenged in the state’s legal system over his infamous ruling that it is forbidden to sell or rent homes to non-Jews in Israel and other bigoted statements. These troubling proclamations should not only call into question the legality of his run, but also his standing as an heir to the tradition of the religious Zionist Chief Rabbinate.
The founder of Israel’s modern Chief Rabbinate, Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, was known for his love of humanity. In his philosophical writings he preached tolerance and humanism. In his halakhic statements he concluded that discriminatory Talmudic legislation was no longer applicable. In fact, his famous support for the heter mechirah (the selling of the land of Israel in the Sabbatical year to a non-Jew) is based on a halakhic analysis that runs counter to Rabbi Eliyahu’s position.
Rabbi Kook’s friend and colleague, Rabbi Benzion Meir Chai Uziel who went on to become the first Sephardi Chief Rabbi of the state was likewise known for his humanism. In his biography of Rabbi Uziel, Rabbi Marc Angel records Rabbi Uziel’s inaugural address that appealed to the Arab population saying “The land is stretched out before us, and with joined hands we will work it, we will uncover its treasures, and we will live on it as brothers who dwell together.” The sentiments of Rabbi Uziel’s moving speech were concretized in a seminal essay by the next in line of Israel’s Chief Rabbis, Rabbi Isaac Herzog. Rabbi Herzog wrote an involved and detailed essay outlining our obligation to maintain equal civil rights for Israel’s minority population. Each of the Chief Rabbinate’s founding fathers explicitly expressed a Zionist vision of Israel that respected the civil rights of the state’s non-Jewish minority.
Some might suggest that times have changed and current security concerns demand a reevaluation of policies towards the Arab citizens with whom we share this land. I believe that such a suggestion grossly misreads history. It simultaneously overlooks the extreme tensions of the early Zionist era and overestimates today’s threat from Israel’s non-Jewish citizenry. In fact, later rabbinic Zionist figures like Rabbi Chaim David Halevy and Rabbi Yehuda Amital continued to express over and again the moral and halakhic imperative to protect the rights of Israel’s Arab minority. Most recently, leading Rabbinic lights in the religious Zionist camp, including Rabbi Yaakov Ariel and Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein have spoken out against Rabbi Eliyahu’s halakhic proclamation.
The chief Rabbinate and religious Zionism have a long history of maintaining that a Jewish state must be committed to protecting the rights of its non-Jewish citizens. A full restoration of the Chief Rabbinate to the Religious Zionist camp would result in the election of a candidate whose vision includes the humanistic tolerant values of its founders.