JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Dozens of Israeli rabbis, some of them civil servants, issued an appeal on Tuesday telling locals not to sell or rent property to non-Jews, drawing condemnation from lawmakers and human rights activists.
The open letter underscored Jewish-Arab tensions that have deepened along with Israel's deadlocked Palestinian conflict, as well as more recent demographic fears triggered by an influx of illegal African migrants.
"The Land of Israel is intended for the people of Israel," Yosef Shainin, chief rabbi of the southern port city of Ashdod and one of the 41 signatories, told Israel's Army Radio when asked about the letter.
Obtained by Reuters ahead of its planned publication in synagogues and religious journals, the letter quotes warnings by ancient sages that living with non-Jews can lead to "sacrilege." Other concerns for property values are also raised.
Another signatory, Chief Rabbi Mordechai Nagari from the Maale Adumim settlement, said: "If you allow Arabs into Jewish neighborhoods, you are asking for feuds to ensue."
While religious edicts are commonplace and often ignored in predominantly secular Israel, the letter was unusual as several of the rabbis were state-funded municipal chaplains -- in Nagari's case, of a settlement in the occupied West Bank, where Palestinians have been struggling for statehood.
The Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and opposition lawmakers demanded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemn the letter and discipline those rabbis.
"This obliges, once and for all, their prosecution for racial incitement," said Israeli Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi.
Neither Netanyahu's office nor Israel's Religious Affairs Ministry, which employs the rabbis, were available for comment.
ACRI has also urged Justice Minister Yaakov Ne'eman to remove Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu from his public post in the northern town of Safed. Eliyahu sparked controversy last month by supporting a campaign urging residents not to rent apartments to Arab students attending a local college.
The Safed case is under investigation by police after posters were put up around the town identifying an octogenarian Jewish Holocaust survivor who was offering flats for rent to the students, urging residents to denounce him.
Among critics of the rabbinical letter was Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, whose northern port city enjoys Jewish-Arab coexistence.
"This is sacrilege. It spreads hatred and divisions among the people with whom we have decided to share our lives," Yahav told Army Radio.
About 20 percent of Israel's population of 7.5 million are Arabs, some of whom complain of systematic discrimination. Israel's 1948 Declaration of Independence guarantees full rights to non-Jewish citizens.
The future of ethnic relations has been thrust into the spotlight by a proposed law obliging new citizens to swear allegiance to the "Jewish state of Israel."
Additional reporting by Douglas Hamilton in Jerusalem