A Shas MK’s apparent disparagement of Moldova during a spat with Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman this week became a diplomatic incident Thursday as the Eastern European country’s envoy to Israel sent a letter of protest.
During a Knesset plenum debate Wednesday, the Moldovan-born Liberman invoked the Vilna Gaon — a revered rabbi from the 18th century — to rebuke ultra-Orthodox institutions that do not teach core subjects, noting that the rabbi “studied mathematics.”
In response, Shas MK Yinon Azoulay called Liberman “the ignoramus from Moldova” and claimed he had “no right to talk about the Vilna Gaon,” comments that Yisrael Beytenu later charged were racist.
In a letter to Azoulay, Moldovan Ambassador Alexandr Roitman said he had “learned with extreme dismay” that the Shas lawmaker had mentioned his country “in a negative connotation.”
“I could not let simply bypass such an unjust comment towards the state and people of Moldova, and also let this sad incident to lay a shadow [sic] on the bilateral ties between the Republic of Moldova and State of Israel,” he wrote.
Roitman urged Azoulay to “avoid such remarks” in the future, saying that “such language is unacceptable.” He also cited “centuries of common history” between the Moldovan and Jewish people, while hailing the contribution of Jews from his country to Israel’s foundation and development.
There was no immediate response from Azoulay.
Following Azoulay’s comments Wednesday, Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer called for his removal as chairman of the Knesset Ethics Committee over the “severely racist comments.”
“This committee is meant to act against comments such as these and condemn them,” Forer said.
The exchange between Liberman and Azoulay came a week after the Knesset passed the national budget for 2023-2024, which includes NIS 1.2 billion ($321.3 million) for private, non-supervised Haredi educational institutions, many of which do not teach core subjects like math and English. Additional funds will go to the official Haredi education system, and for the construction of buildings for religious purposes and supporting Haredi culture and identity.
Critics have accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of going too far to appease ultra-Orthodox parties at the expense of the general public, with the country battling inflation and a high cost of living.
Liberman used to be close political allies with Shas chief Aryeh Deri, but the two became foes after the secularist Yisrael Beytenu broke with Netanyahu’s right-religious bloc following elections in April 2019 over the issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment in the military.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.