Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday led a chorus of criticism of Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi after it was revealed that the religious leader had referred to immigrants from the former Soviet Union as “religion-hating gentiles” — comments the premier branded “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.”
The Ynet news site reported that at a rabbinical gathering last week in Jerusalem, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef 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.”
Avigdor Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beytenu party, whose base is largely composed of secular immigrants from the former Soviet Union, called for Yosef’s resignation over his statements, saying that his words were “anti-Semitic and racist” and that he hoped Yitzhak 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 Prime Minister Benjamin 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.”
Edelstein was sent to Soviet prison on trumped-up drug charges after being caught teaching clandestine Hebrew lessons. Denied a request to immigrate to Israel, Edelstein became a prominent prisoner of Zion with his then-wife Tatyana leading the efforts to free him. He was released in May 1987, on the eve of Israeli Independence Day.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said Yosef must apologize for his words, saying that the State of Israel owes a debt to immigrants from the Soviet Union who brought cultural, scientific and social knowledge with them.
MK Tamar Zandberg of the Democratic Union called for the attorney general to open an investigation into whether Yosef was inciting hatred.
“Those from the Soviet Union lawfully immigrated to Israel and are equal citizens who must be protected from hatred and hate speech that could lead to violence,” she said in a statement. “Therefore I am calling on [the attorney general] to open an investigation as soon as possible into the inciting statements made by Chief Rabbi Yosef, to see whether it is appropriate for a person who so expresses himself to be a public figure.”
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.”
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 woman 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.