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Israel's two chief rabbis, Ashkenazi rabbi Yisrael Lau (L) and Sephardi rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron wave support as they sit in the balcony of the Knesset (Parliament) August 3 and look towards Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin after he delivered his speech to the Knesset seeking support for the historic Israeli-Jordanian peace deal that formally ended a 46-year state of war.Jim Hollander/Reuters

Usama Ghanaiem was at home with a group of friends when the mob attacked.

It was a Friday night in late October, and about 30 young ultra-Orthodox Jewish men walking home from synagogue began throwing rocks at the apartment building where several Arab students rent accommodation in the northern city of Safed.

One of the attackers even fired a gun; another left a message "Death to Arabs" scrawled on the front door. The police were called but most of the Jewish men had dispersed by the time they arrived. Three people have reportedly been charged.

"It was crazy," said Mr. Ghanaiem, a 21-year-old psychology student. "We weren't doing anything [to provoke them]"

Mr. Ghanaiem and his friends, all college students from a number of Arab communities in Israel, have found themselves caught up in a growing nationwide campaign against Israel's 1.2 million Arab citizens. It began with an edict issued by Shmuel Eliahu, chief rabbi of Safed, that prohibits Jews in the city from renting or selling property to gentiles, by which he really means Arabs. Close to 300 rabbis across the country now have signed onto Rabbi Eliahu's original statement or onto similar statements.

"Their ultimate goal is a theocratic state," says Nachman Ben-Yehuda, a Hebrew University sociology professor whose book Theocratic Democracy has just been published. "In the meantime, they want to enforce division between the ultra-Orthodox and everyone else."

Israeli President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and several other politicians have denounced the campaign, but appear unable to stop it. The country's top legal officials, Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein and Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, have said only that they are troubled by the proclamations and are looking into legal action might be considered to stop them.

Four years ago, Rabbi Eliahu was charged with inciting racism when he issued a similar statement, specifically against renting to Arabs. The charges were dropped when the rabbi agreed to soften his words. Indeed, this time, Rabbi Eliahu names only gentiles in general as his target, a step that may make it difficult for incitement charges to stick, Israeli lawyers says.

"We are dealing with skinhead rabbis who are working against the Arabs," said Ahmed Tibi, an Arab Member of Knesset, as he demanded the government take action.

Groups such as the Anti-Defamation League in the United States and the Canada-Israel Committee have condemned the rabbinical ruling as a perversion of Jewish values. Michael Marmur, vice-president of Hebrew Union College, a Reform Judaism institution, called the rabbinical declarations "shameful, harmful and wrong."

Significantly, the leading rabbi of Israel's non-Hasidic Orthodox sector, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, also denounced the religious ruling. "I've said for some time that there are rabbis who must have their pens taken away from them," he said.

Rabbi Elyashiv's aides explained that the rabbi was particularly concerned that such acts against Arabs could lead to anti-Semitic attacks on Jews in other countries.

In Safed, Mayor Ilan Shohat is trying to keep order. He had police officers posted each Friday night outside the building where Mr. Ghanaiem and his friends live. He also told Knesset members to stay away, and asked his city's chief rabbi to cool it.

But even the secular Mr. Shohat has sympathy for the rabbi. "You have to understand," he said, "these people [the ultra-Orthodox]are trying live a strict religious life."

"The problem is the mixing of people," he said, pointing to some Arab college students and a Jewish girl passing each other in the street. Though nothing untoward was involved, he called it "a recipe for trouble."

"The only way is to keep them apart," he said, explaining that the Safed Academic College will soon be relocated outside the city, as will a new medical school. Each will have dormitories so that students will be kept far from the religious community that dominates the centre of this hilltop city.

Rabbi Eliahu, declined repeated requests to be interviewed, but he did speak recently to two Israeli journalists, to explain the motivation behind his ruling.

"Since the Arabs came, people don't leave their doors open at night," he said. "People are afraid to go into the street when it's dark. Girls are afraid to walk down the streets."

Admonishing Arabs in Israel, he said: "If you live in the country that was given to the Jewish people," a reference to the Biblical passage of God giving ancient Israel to the Jews, "then behave like a guest."

"The truth is that I think Safed should be Jewish," he said. "The Arabs and Muslims now have dozens of countries, 22 countries," and there is only one Jewish state.

Posters put up around town tell citizens of Safed to "Awaken...before it's too late."

"Arabs, under the guise of being students" are becoming "a nest of cruel vipers" seeking to seduce Jewish girls "and turn them into their handmaidens," the posters read.

Ruth Gavison, president of the liberal Zionist organization Metzilah, notes that what's happening in Safed is just the tip of the iceberg. "The relatively rapid growth of Arab and religious and ultra-religious Jewish populations" in the Galilee of northern Israel are "in a total, head-on confrontation."

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