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Rabbis in Israel warn Jews not to rent or sell property to non-Jews

By Kareem Khadder and Shira Medding, CNN
  • A letter written by 50 rabbis sparks harsh words from Netanyahu and rights groups
  • The rabbis warn that those who defy their religious ruling will be "ostracized"
  • The letter is to be distributed across the country later this week

Jerusalem (CNN) -- A letter signed by 50 state-appointed rabbis telling Jews not to rent or sell property to non-Jews prompted widespread condemnation Tuesday from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and human rights groups.

The letter warned that those who defied the religious ruling should be "ostracized."

"In answer to many questions, we reply that it is prohibited by the Torah to sell a house or field in Israel to a gentile," the letter reads.

The letter is to be published in religious newspapers and distributed in synagogues across the country later this week, according to the Israeli news website Ynet.

It contends that "those who sell or rent out in an area which Jews live cause great damage to his neighbors. ... For their way of life is different to Jews.

"It is known that due to selling or renting one apartment, all the apartments of the neighbors devaluate even if the buyers or renters are nice at first ... and the one that sells and rents first causes his neighbors a loss and causes others to rent and sell after him and leave the place."

Netanyahu blasted the letter's contents Tuesday evening.

"The citizens of this country are Jews and also non-Jews," he said. "How would we feel if someone was to say not to sell an apartment to Jews? We would be enraged by this. ... Things like this must not be said -- not about Jews and not about Arabs. They must not be said in any democratic country and especially not in the Jewish democratic state that respects the morals of the Jewish heritage and the Bible."

A spokeswoman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel expressed similarly harsh words to CNN over the letter, saying the group is horrified by the level of racism expressed.

"We are particularly troubled by the fact that most of the people who signed the letter are civil servants who work for the state as rabbis," spokeswoman Ronit Sela said. "And we think that as civil servants they have an obligation to be servants of the entire population of Israel, which includes Arabs who live in the city."

Sela called on Netanyahu to take firm action against the rabbis, suggesting disciplinary steps may be necessary.

"Racism became a main stream in the Israeli society," said Ahmad Tibi, an Arab member of Knesset, the Israeli parliament, "and those 50 rabbis will not stop at 50 -- they will increase more and more because the attorney general is not taking any action against racist rabbis.

"Muslim religious officials were fired and investigated to court by police and quick and immediate actions were taken by the police on minor accusations, but here we say that the state represented by the attorney general is doing nothing, as if to say they are tolerant to this racist act."

This is not the first time a rabbi has lashed out against non-Jews. In August, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Israel's ultra-orthodox political party, Shas, was quoted by Israel Army Radio as saying that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas "and all these evil people should perish from this world. ... God should strike them with a plague -- them and these Palestinians."

Nearly 1.5 million Arab residents live inside Israel, making up 23% of the population.