Hate-Preacher Rabbi Provokes Riots in The Galilee

Arabs and Jews have united in condemning Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu for inciting racism in the Upper Galilee town of Safed. Eliyahu chaired a conference last week in which he informed his audience that it was ‘sinful’ to sell or rent property to non-Jews, sparking a violent demonstration against Arab students of Safed College. The Rabbi had previously demanded that the Israeli government “hang the children of terrorists from a tree”.

Written by Sophie Crowe.

On Friday, around sixty orthodox Jews gathered outside the home of three Arab students. One of them, Aiman Hamoda, was returning from work when he saw the crowd. “They were shouting ‘Death to the Arabs!’ and demanding we leave Safed”, he told us. They threw stones at the house and gun shots were fired, breaking a window. The students called the police, who arrived thirty minutes later and arrested two men.The three students now intend to move away from the predominantly Jewish neighbourhood where they were attacked. Hamoda believes Rabbi Eliyahu has influenced Safed’s religious Jews, who have become more intolerant. “Finding an apartment will be harder now”. 

Baruch, a Jewish resident of Safed, told us the students are over-reacting. “We have never have never had any (race) problems; the situation went out of control due to the actions of a few people”. Baruch claims the violence was partly the fault of Arabs playing music too loud.

However, Baruch blames Rabbi Eliyahu’s anti-Arab agitation as the spark to ignite confrontation. “He should watch more carefully what he says. If he wants to be a politician let him leave his rabbinical position”. He claims the Rabbi’s hate preaching has not influenced the majority of Safed’s Jews. “Jews and Arabs have lived together since the creation of Israel and there has been no trouble with our Arabs in the city or in the neighbouring villages. Arabs are very involved in Safed society”.

Arab-Israeli Knesset Member Hanna Swaid, of the Hadash party, has condemned Eliyahu’s actions and lobbied the Attorney General to place him under criminal investigation. This is not the first time. Five years ago Swaid demanded an investigation “when Eliyahu claimed the Arab presence was altering the Jewish nature and identity of the town and encouraged intimidation of families that were renting to Arab students”. The Attorney General filed a case, which was dropped when the rabbi agreed to apologise. Now, Eliyahu is repeating the call for discrimination and Swaid, among others, is demanding the Attorney General reopen the case.

It is the most serious controversy concerning a Rabbi’s behaviour since Yitzhak Shapira, head of the Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva, advocated the killing of gentiles who oppose Israel in July.

MK Swaid feels that a respected religious personality publically promoting discriminatory views is a reflection of growing threats toward Arab citizens in Israel.

“This is not a new phenomenon. It connects with the general climate in which extremists are trying to create a hostile environment for minorities. Safed could reflect the whole region”, he says. The Upper Galillee is particularly open to tension as it is divided evenly in demographic terms between Jews and Arabs.

Swaid believes that as “discrimination is prohibited in Israel, it is the responsibility of the government to intervene to stop this anti-Arab agitation and to bring people who perpetuate the tension to justice. We should not forget that Rabbis are official public servants who use public money in the councils they administer; the government should not allow this money to be spent on racial discrimination.”

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