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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Facts on the ground

Every so often I get an email from a reader asking me to weigh in on some topic or other from the news. Usually it is something political, but sometimes it is a religious issue.

Usually when I get such requests, I politely decline because, let's face it, someone else has probably already done a better job of rehashing the issue than I ever could.

Over the weekend I received such a request from a reader I'll call 'John (because that's his real name):

"Trep, I'm always interested in your views on things mundane and sublime and in between. What's your take on the Rabbis' Letter out of Tzfat forbidding rentals/sales to non-Jews? I know this is a potential bomb, but might you opine? Inquiring minds want to know your opinions."

At first blush this is exactly the type of topic that I shouldn't touch with a ten foot pole. Not only am I ignorant of most of the particulars... but living in an area where land rights are in dispute, I am what some might call 'an interested party'.

Never-the-less... here I go:

To begin with, yes, I have an opinion. But it is not so much about who is wrong or right... as it is about correctly identifying what is actually going on.

First some background for those who are unfamiliar with the topic:

It seems that a Rabbi in Tzfat (Safed) in northern Israel recently became alarmed enough about Arabs renting and buying up properties in areas which are predominantly Jewish, that he issued a decree forbidding Jews to rent or sell to Arabs.

The Rabbi's concern stems from his suspicion (IMHO probably correct) that the trend is not a purely natural one of individual Arabs happening to want to move into areas that happen to be Jewish. Almost certainly, many of these real estate transactions are being carried out at the behest of (and with the financial backing of) nationalist Arab/Palestinian groups.

This is what is known in the region as 'creating facts on the ground'.

But let's take a deep breath for a moment and define that oft-used/abused phrase.

'Creating facts on the ground' is what the the French (and those who like to use French expressions) call a fait accompli; literally an accomplished fact or 'done deal'. In other words something that has already happened and is therefore unlikely to be reversed.

Historically, the phrase has mostly been used to accuse the Israeli settler movement of placing so many Israeli Jews in disputed areas that it will be difficult or impossible to uproot them. To some extent this is true. Whether it is legal, moral or any of a half dozen other things, is a discussion for another day.

But what is largely ignored is that the Arabs are equally adept at 'creating facts on the ground', and the development of much of Judea and Samaria's (the west bank) real estate since it fell into Israeli hands after the 1967 Six Day War has been like a fast moving game of 'Risk' with both sides working feverishly to bring the most territory under their control so as to be declared the winner.

Looking at photographs of my town and its surrounding areas from around the period when it was founded (circa 1980) is an excellent example. Efrat was planned as a long, narrow community that would sprawl progressively across the ridgeline of several prominent hills in the heart of Gush Etzion. What is striking about those early photos is the nearly complete lack of anything here. A few tiny nearby Arab villages were extant, but nothing whatsoever on or near the proposed site of Efrat can be seen in any period photos or survey maps.

Yet as soon as the municipal boundaries of Efrat were defined and approved, suddenly a lot of Arab agriculture began springing up on all sides of us... quite literally hemming us in and making future natural growth (what the rest of the world would call urban sprawl) all but impossible.

That little of the land now under Palestinian cultivation was actually legally owned by the farmers when they began the cultivation is neither here nor there. Once they are growing grapes and olives (crops that require only occasional tending and once-per-year harvesting), it becomes difficult for the legal owner, or even the sovereign, to re-exert meaningful control over the land.

My point is that yes, both Jews and Arabs are extremely adept at creating facts on the ground. The end result of which is the ever-shifting 'Israeli and international consensus' over what can and can't be considered negotiable in a future peace settlement.

So getting back to the issue of the Rabbinical decree up in Tzfat... we need to look at a few things:

1. Is what the Arabs are doing a legitimate cause for concern? In my opinion, yes. The city has a long history of 'friction' along the fault lines where the Jewish and Arab populations bump up against one another. If either side were to significantly try to alter the status quo in the other's neighborhoods, violence is almost certain to follow.

2. Is the Jewish Community doing anything similar to what the Arabs are being accused of? To a smaller extent, yes. However, as with similar efforts in Jerusalem's old city, the purchasing of properties by Jews in predominantly Muslim areas is nearly always designed to either a) bring formerly Jewish properties back under Jewish ownership; or b) to create contiguity between isolated Jewish properties that have been legally purchased.

3. Is there anything overtly illegal about what either side is doing? From a real estate standpoint, no.

4. Is there anything overtly illegal about the decree issued by the Rabbi. IMHO (and I'm not a lawyer), yes. In a democracy it is problematic (to say the least) to place religious or ethnic limitations upon who can do what in any particular place. Think about it for a moment: It actually makes it nearly impossible to protest racist exclusion of Jews from certain areas if we try to do the same to Arabs.

5. Is there anything religiously/ethically problematic about the Rabbi's decree? I'll leave that to a far more knowledgeable blogger. But suffice it to say that any religious decree which is not likely to be widely accepted, and which will actually result in bringing scorn upon the Torah and its institutions by Jews and non-Jews alike, is a very, very bad thing indeed.

I'll stop here and let you talk amongst yourselves.

Posted by David Bogner on December 19, 2010 | Permalink

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Check your link, David. You've capitalized the 'A' in Arabs, leading to an 'unknown' message.

Posted by: Russell Gold | Dec 19, 2010 4:34:24 PM

A very tidy summary of a very complex issue. Thank you!

Posted by: Shimshonit | Dec 19, 2010 9:01:01 PM

Rabbis who have spoken up about this (i.e., signed the petition) claim nationalist inclinations. (Security is another issue.) They want Jewish land in the hands of the Jews. There is a risk of becoming a Jewish people without a land if that land is bought up by people hostile to our interests. Until Moshiach comes and we get it all back, frankly, in my opinion, there is no other option other than these restrictions.

Posted by: nanaloshen | Dec 19, 2010 9:53:21 PM

Here's an interesting response:

http://kolharav.blogspot.com/2010/12/rabbi-aharon-lichtensteins-response-to.html

Posted by: Drew | Dec 20, 2010 4:34:22 AM

Why aren't those who think it immoral outraged when Jews are restricted?

Posted by: Batya | Dec 20, 2010 7:37:59 AM

There is an article dated 12/19/10 by rabbi Eliezer Melammed on the English-language website of Arutz Sheva, titled "A Courageous Rabbinate", which gives answers to some aspects of this matter which were not considered here.

Posted by: weis | Dec 20, 2010 6:22:40 PM

I doubt it.

Posted by: Esther | Dec 23, 2010 6:10:41 PM

"someone else has probably already done a better job of rehashing the issue than I ever could."
I doubt it.

edit: sorry first post went wrong.

Posted by: Esther | Dec 23, 2010 6:11:37 PM

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