High Court orders disciplinary action against Safed’s acerbic chief rabbi

Justices censure Shmuel Eliyahu for ‘degrading’ comments toward Arab Israelis, say former justice minister Shaked was ‘extremely unreasonable’ in deciding not to act against him

Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu in 2013. (Flash90/Yonatan Sindel)
Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu in 2013. (Flash90/Yonatan Sindel)

The High Court of Justice on Monday ordered disciplinary action taken against the chief rabbi of Safed for making a series of offensive comments and for taking “explicit” political stances.

The ruling came in response to a petition filed by several rights groups in 2016 against Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, citing over a hundred separate statements.

“These statements express a very negative attitude, to the point of degradation, of the phenomenon of assimilation of Jews and the LGBT community and in favor of a halachic ban on the sale and rental of Jewish property to the Arab population and on women’s service,” justices wrote.

Judges also said that former justice minister Ayelet Shaked was “extremely unreasonable” in her decision not to take action against Eliyahu when first presented with the petition against him in 2016.

Eliyahu, the son of the late Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, who served as Sephardi chief rabbi from 1983 to 1993, has generated criticism over the past few years for a variety of statements and rulings, including one ruling that forbade the rental or sale of Jewish-owned property in Safed to Arabs.

The mostly Jewish city is home to a medical school with a large number of Arab students, many of whom look to live in Safed during their studies.

“A Jew should not flee from Arabs. A Jew should make the Arabs flee. There is a silent war going on here for land”; “most of the violence in Israeli society stems from the Arabs”; and “the Arabs have a different code, and violent norms that have become an ideology” — were among the statements Eliyahu made in a 2010 interview with the Maariv daily.

Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu at the elections for the two chief rabbis in Jerusalem’s Leonardo Hotel on July 24, 2013. (photo credit: Flash90/ Yonatan Sindel)

In 2011, then-attorney general Yehuda Weinstein called for a criminal investigation into Eliyahu’s comments for suspected incitement, but by 2012, the Justice Ministry, then headed by Yaakov Neeman, closed all proceedings, citing lack of evidence.

In 2018, Eliyahu set off tensions with the defense establishment when he said IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot should be dismissed because he allowed female soldiers to serve in combat units.

Last week he was one of several prominent right-wing rabbis to call for the acquittal of a Jewish Israeli convicted of murdering three members of a Palestinian family in a terror attack.

Responding to Monday’s court ruling, Eliyahu said, “This court will always protect infiltrators, terrorists, prevent the destruction of murderers’ houses, protect Bedouins who build on Jewish lands. You will never find it protecting [Sephardi Jews] or those living in the periphery. We have no confidence in this court. It is a political court.”

In a similar statement against the court, Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich said that in an ideal world “the court would be standing trial, not the honored rabbi.”

The Tag Meir group, one of several that presented the initial petition against Eliyahu, said following the ruling, “The High Court today issued a red card to Rabbi Eliyahu and all inciting rabbis.”

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of Israel’s Reform movement, said the court sent a message “that the State of Israel cannot allow rabbis to use their public service to incite continuously and consistently toward racism and the exclusion of Arab citizens of Israel, and that the government is not allowed to close its eyes to a continuing violation of the law by rabbis.”

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