An ultra-Orthodox Jew walks through an alley in Israel’s northern town of Safed, where Kabbalah mysticism has its roots.Nir Elias / Reuters
SAFED, ISRAEL // The tranquility of Safed, a small Israeli city nestled high in the hills of the Upper Galilee close to the Lebanese border, is not usually disturbed except by occasional pilgrimages by Madonna or other famous devotees of the Jewish mystical teachings of Kabbalah.
But in the past few weeks, Safed - one of Judaism's four holy cities - has been making headlines of a very different kind. Gideon Levy, a columnist for the Israeli daily Haaretz, last week declared it "the most racist city in the country".
The unflattering, and hotly contested, epithet follows an edict from Safed's senior rabbis ordering residents not to sell or rent homes to "non-Jews" - a reference to the country's Palestinian Arab citizens, who comprise a fifth of Israel's population.
At an emergency meeting called last month to discuss the dangers of assimilation caused by Arab men dating Jewish women, the 18 rabbis warned that Safed and its 40,000 Jewish residents were facing an "Arab takeover".
The number of Arabs in the city, though low, has been steadily rising as the student body at Safed Academic College has expanded. There are now some 1,300 Arab students enrolled at the school.
The rabbis' statements have provoked a series of attacks by ultranationalist Jews, in which several Arab homes have been attacked to chants of "Death to the Arabs". In one recent incident, three Arab students were beaten as shots were fired.
So far three Jewish youths, including an off-duty policeman, have been charged with participating in the violence. The policeman is accused of firing his gun.
The anti-Arab campaign escalated last week as posters were plastered across the city threatening to burn down the home of an elderly Jew if he did not stop renting to Arab students.
The owner, 89-year-old Eli Zvieli, said the posters appeared after he received phone threats and visits from several rabbis warning him to change his mind.
Jamil Khalaili, 20, a physiotherapy student at the college who rents an apartment with a friend in a Jewish neighbourhood, said the atmosphere in Safed was rapidly deteriorating.
"We're being treated like criminals, like we're trying to steal their homes," he said. "It's got to the point where many of my friends are wondering whether to leave. I want to study here but not if it costs me my life."
Leading the opposition to the presence of Arab students in the city is Safed's chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliyahu, who is employed by the municipality as head of its religious council.
"When a non-Jew moves in, residents begin to worry about their children, about their daughters. Many Arab students have been known to date Jewish girls," Israel National News quoted Mr Eliyahu as saying.
The 18 rabbis issued their statement after learning of the college's plan to build a medical school, which is expected to draw Arab students from across the Galilee.
In the statement, they urged Jewish residents to shun a "neighbour or acquaintance" who rents to Arabs. "Refrain from doing business with him, deny him the right to read from the Torah, and similarly ostracise him until he renounces this harmful deed," it said.
Similar anti-Arab sentiments are being heard in Karmiel and Upper Nazareth, two other cities in the Galilee. Both were established decades ago as part of what the government termed a "Judaisation" programme to settle more Jews in the country's most heavily Arab-populated region.
In Karmiel, 30km west of Safed, adverts in local newspapers have promoted a special e-mail address for residents to notify authorities about any neighbours planning to sell homes to Arabs. The e-mail account is overseen by officials for Oren Milstein, who was the city's deputy mayor until he was fired last week, according to Ynet, a news website.