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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected on Tuesday an appeal by dozens of Israeli rabbis that locals should refuse to sell or rent property to non-Jews, a call which has raised tensions with Israeli Arabs.
Netanyahu said the rabbis' call was undemocratic and contradicted the bible, and alluded to the history of discrimination suffered by Jews themselves.
"The land of Israel rejects these comments outright," Netanyahu said of an open letter whose signatories included publicly-funded rabbis.
Obtained by Reuters before 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.
"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.
Religious edicts are commonplace and often ignored in predominantly secular Israel. However, the letter raised concern as it underscored deepening Jewish-Arab tensions alongside a deadlocked conflict with Palestinians, as well as demographic fears following an influx of illegal African migrants.
"Such things should not be said, neither about Jews nor Arabs. They must not be said in any democratic land, and especially not in a Jewish democratic state that respects the morality of the heritage of Israel and the Bible," Netanyahu said in a speech to contestants in an annual bible quiz.
About 20 percent of Israel's population of 7.5 million are Arabs, some of whom complain of systematic discrimination. Israeli law guarantees full rights to non-Jewish citizens.
Netanyahu alluded to the history of anti-Semitism, in addition to what many Israelis see as a lack of acceptance in much of Arab world.
"There are Jews and non-Jews in our midst. How would we feel if somebody were to say not to sell an apartment to the Jews? We would protest, and we do protest when this is said among our neighbours," he said.
The Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and opposition lawmakers demanded the rabbis be disciplined. "This obliges, once and for all, their prosecution for racial incitement," said Israeli Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi.
ACRI has also demanded the removal of a rabbi in the northern town of Safed who has supported a campaign urging residents not to rent apartments to Arab college students.
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 said.
Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Douglas Hamilton in Jerusalem