Chief rabbi doubles down on comments against immigrants as Liberman urges probe

Sephardic leader also claims his filmed comments calling some former Soviet Union ‘religion-hating gentiles’ were ‘distorted by politically interested sources’

Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attends the traditional selling of the the hametz (food containing leavening) of the state of Israel to a non-Jew before the upcoming Passover holiday, on March 29, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attends the traditional selling of the the hametz (food containing leavening) of the state of Israel to a non-Jew before the upcoming Passover holiday, on March 29, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Yisrael Beytenu party on Tuesday urged the attorney general to open an incitement investigation into Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef over his comments last week doubting the Jewishness of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The rabbi on Tuesday doubled down on his assertions while also claiming his words had been distorted by politicians.

Avigdor Liberman’s party, whose voter base is largely composed of secular immigrants from former Soviet states, said there was “strong doubt as to whether [Yosef] can continue to serve in this public position” over his statements.

MK Tamar Zandberg of the Democratic Camp — a party diametrically opposed to Liberman in most of its positions — also called for the attorney general to investigate.

In a statement Tuesday responding to the furor, Yosef said there were “a great many” non-Jews who had immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union under the Law of Return, and called for the law to be amended.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman speaks with the media during a faction meeting in the Knesset on December 2, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“I said it clearly and I will repeat it: Alongside the welcome immigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union, who gave their lives for many years to maintain the Jewish flame, there is a minority of immigrants who are not Jews according to tradition, who came due to the grandchild clause in the Law of Return that allows those whose mother and father are not Jewish to immigrate,” Yosef said in a statement.

“Those who bring in great numbers of non-Jews to Israel through this clause due to unclean considerations are being unfair first and foremost toward those immigrants, and leave them at every stage of their lives facing an impossible reality of living in a Jewish state,” he said.

Yosef asserted that “amending the Law of Return is first and foremost in the interest of those immigrants.”

He claimed that during visits to “flourishing Jewish communities in Russia and Ukraine” he was “exposed to serious criticism in the communities towards the bringing in of many immigrants who are not Jews to Israel.”

In a video uploaded to Facebook later in the day, he asserted that some immigrants “develop anti-Semitic sentiments” and “have caused terrible incitement against Judaism.”

At the same time, Yosef also claimed his initial comments on the matter — which raised a storm of criticism against him — were “distorted by interested political sources who have for many months incited against Jewish tradition and law.”

He stressed that “alongside the criticism, as Jews we must accept any resident of the land [and] value their contribution to us as as a society. Our Bible teaches us to respect every human being.”

In a video published by the Ynet news site early Tuesday, Yosef referred to immigrants from the former Soviet Union as “religion-hating gentiles.”

Filmed during a rabbinical gathering last week in Jerusalem, the rabbi told the audience that “hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of gentiles came to Israel under the Law of Return… There are many, many non-Jews here, some of them communists, hostile to religion, haters of religion. They are not Jews at all, gentiles. Then they vote for parties that incite against the ultra-Orthodox and against religion.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, December 29, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

The revelation was met with wall-to-wall condemnation by politicians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the comments as “outrageous and inappropriate.”

“Immigration from the former Soviet Union is a huge boon to the State of Israel and the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “The government… will continue to work for the immigration and absorption into the country of our brothers and sisters from the former Soviet Union.”

Liberman called for Yosef’s resignation over his statements, saying that his words were “anti-Semitic and racist.” He expressed hope that Yosef would be replaced by someone who wouldn’t “separate and divide” people.

Liberman, himself an immigrant from Moldova, a former Soviet republic, later said Yosef was “not the chief rabbi, but the chief inciter.”

Liberman refused to join a government led by Netanyahu last May over disagreements with ultra-Orthodox parties on the military draft law of ultra-Orthodox students. In November he published a list of demands regarding religion and state, saying they are the absolute minimum to which his secular party will agree in any negotiations to form a coalition government after the March elections.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud), who was held as a prisoner of Zion in a Soviet jail for over three years before immigrating to Israel, said that “Israel cannot be imagined without the huge contribution of immigration from the USSR. Even in an election period, there is no room for the invalid discourse of hatred and division.”

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein gives a press statement in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on November 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said Yosef must apologize for his words, adding that the State of Israel owes a debt to immigrants from the Soviet Union who brought cultural, scientific and social knowledge with them.

Rabbi Uri Regev of Hiddush, an organization that advocates for greater religious pluralism in Israel, also called for Yosef’s resignation.

“Yosef is a politician, as he has already demonstrated in the previous elections, an actor in the Shas election campaign, causing deliberate damage to Judaism and the Jewish people,” he said.

Yosef was addressing rabbis who were preparing to travel abroad as emissaries, and advised them not to get involved with conversions due to sensitivities stemming from religious law.

Later in the conversation he also attacked religious judges, some by name, some of whom he said he considered to be too lenient on matters of conversion.

Yosef even said that conversions under the auspices of the state’s rabbinical courts, which come under his own supervision, should not be automatically accepted.

Rabbi David Stav, a co-founder of Tzohar, an organization of religious Zionist Orthodox rabbis in Israel that aims to put a friendlier face on religious services provided to the public, said: “It’s incomprehensible that someone who stands at the head of the rabbinical courts and the rabbinate spreads lies about local rabbis and is doubting the integrity of local rabbinical judges, simply because of his own personal views.”

Rabbi David Stav (Flash90)

The Law of Return grants near-automatic citizenship to those with at least one Jewish grandparent. But the Chief Rabbinate only recognizes them as Jews under a strict interpretation of halacha, or Jewish law: They must have a Jewish mother or have been converted to Judaism by Orthodox rabbis who are approved by the official state rabbinate.

For the past several years, immigration to Israel has again been on the rise from the former Soviet Union, edging out France and other Western European nations as the source for the largest number of new immigrants.

In 2018, Yosef came under fire after he likened black people to monkeys during his weekly sermon. That too led to calls for a criminal investigation.

In May 2017, he appeared to suggest during his weekly sermon that secular women behave like animals because they dress immodestly.

In March 2016, Yosef was forced to retract a comment that non-Jews should not live in Israel, calling it “theoretical.” He said at the time that non-Jews could live in Israel only if they observe the seven Noahide Laws, which are prohibitions against idolatry, blaspheming God, murder, forbidden sexual relations, stealing, and eating limbs off a live animal, and which prescribe the establishment of a legal system.

Non-Jews, Yosef said, are in Israel only to serve Jews.

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