Reform Judaism urges PM to demand rabbi retract comments

Liberman calls for chief rabbi’s ouster for demanding High Court override law

Finance minister says action must be taken before government is sworn in after Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef backs bill, says it can be used to overturn rulings on Reform Judaism

(L) Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman at the Knesset on May 16, 2022 and (R) Israel's Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef in Jerusalem on September 22, 2022 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
(L) Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman at the Knesset on May 16, 2022 and (R) Israel's Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef in Jerusalem on September 22, 2022 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman called on Sunday for the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel to be fired for intervening in politics after the cleric backed a demand by ultra-Orthodox parties that Benjamin Netanyahu’s prospective incoming government pass a bill allowing the Knesset to override High Court of Justice rulings.

In a weekly Torah lesson at a Jerusalem synagogue on Saturday, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef also declared Israel an “Orthodox state.”

“The repeated calls from the chief rabbi Yitzhak Yosef regarding political decisions are nothing less than outrageous,” Liberman tweeted.

“This is not the first attempt to intervene by the chief rabbi, who just a few days ago also intervened in the coalition negotiations and called for a three- and four-fold increase in stipends for yeshiva students,” Liberman wrote, referring to reports Likud chief Netanyahu struck a deal with his right-religious allies to sharply raise the stipends the state grants to yeshiva students.

“Therefore I call on the prime minister to suspend him immediately and for him to be fired after a hearing process — even before the formation of a new government,” wrote Liberman, head of the staunchly secular right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party.

“The chief rabbi is functioning as the chief politician,” Liberman charged.

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, June 2, 2016 (Yaakov Cohen/Flash90)

Israel’s Reform Judaism movement, in response to Yosef’s sermon, called on Prime Minister Yair Lapid to demand the rabbi retract his comments.

“The inciting words of the Chief Rabbi of Israel against thousands of members of the Reform movement communities in Israel are shocking,” the organization said in a statement.

“We will not allow the Chief Rabbi of Israel to deny accessible, pluralistic and egalitarian Judaism to the residents of this country,” the statement read.

The far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s bloc of supporters — which won a 64-member majority in the 120-seat Knesset in the election earlier this month, and are expected to form Israel’s most right-wing government ever — have been demanding that legislation be passed that would allow any 61 lawmakers to overrule decisions by the country’s top court, a demand critics warn could upend Israel’s democratic system of balance between the parliament, the executive and the Judiciary.

Israel’s Haredi community leaders have long deplored some High Court rulings, such as those recognizing non-Orthodox Jewish streams and a ruling requiring the state to equally enlist ultra-Orthodox youth to the army.

In his Saturday sermon, Yosef said the so-called override bill was “an opportunity to amend the law on who is a Jew.”

“There has never before been such government, with 32 religious and ultra-Orthodox Knesset members. Maybe there is an opportunity to amend the law on who is a Jew? Don’t know if it’s possible. To fix things. Now is the opportunity to make amends,” he said.

File: Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef at the International Convention Center, on February 1, 2022. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

That was a reference to reported efforts by members of the likely next government to change the Law of Return, a landmark piece of legislation that allows all Jews and people with a Jewish parent or grandparent to immigrate to Israel. The far-right Religious Zionism party and the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties have demanded the removal of the “grandchild clause,” thereby limiting immigration only to people born to Jewish parents or who have converted to Judaism.

Though not a new one, this proposal would mark a profound change to a rule that has been around for more than five decades, dramatically reducing immigration to Israel and potentially sparking a bitter fight with major international Jewish groups, like the Jewish Agency, which support the Law of Return in its current form.

It is seen as highly unlikely, though not impossible, that the demand will be realized as is.

“This is an Orthodox state, not a Reform one,” Yosef declared, accusing Reform Judaism of “causing assimilation abroad.”

“You have to [pass] the override clause to overcome these High Court rulings,” he said.

Haredi leaders, as well as many Israeli religious Zionist figures, do not view the Reform movement as an authentic form of Judaism and do not recognize Reform rabbis.

Yosef has a history of making provocative comments, including against Reform Judaism, women, immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Black people.

Also Saturday, United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni reiterated his party’s stance that without a High Court override bill, Netanyahu’s prospective government won’t be formed.

Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu meets in Jerusalem with UTJ MK Moshe Gafni on November 6, 2022. (Courtesy)

Speaking at a party event, Gafni said the government would work to cancel the “decrees” issued by Liberman and former prime minister Naftali Bennett over the past year and a half. In Haredi jargon, the word “decree” has the connotation of a draconian measure imposed on religious Jews by a hostile leadership.

Gafni added: “We need the High Court, but [we need it] to be weak.”

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