President Isaac Herzog added his voice Tuesday to an outcry against an influential ultra-Orthodox rabbi who branded government ministers as traitors who were “worse than the Nazis,” expressing exasperation at the need to remind public figures of the contours of acceptable discourse.
“Stop it,” Herzog said at an event meant to celebrate and promote national unity. “Accusations of treason, or of hating Israel, insulting citizens or groups because of their faith or lifestyles, or God forbid, and I can’t believe I even need to say this here, introducing ‘Nazis’ into Israel’s culture of discourse — these are red lines that must not be crossed.”
On Sunday, video emerged of Rabbi Meir Mazuz of the Kisse Rahamim Yeshiva in Bnei Brak giving a lecture a day earlier in which he claimed the government seeks to “choke Torah students” while “giving as much as possible to Arabs.”
“We have bad people. We’re waiting for them to pass from this world,” Mazuz said.
“They are traitors to their people, they hate their people. They’re worse than the Nazis — the Nazis love their own people; but [the ministers] hate their people,” he said, naming Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman as well as “all their friends.”
Lapid and Liberman have long been targeted for opprobrium by ultra-Orthodox leaders over their attempts to roll-back special benefits or exemptions granted to the Haredi community and religious institutions. Liberman drew fresh fire Monday after saying some yeshivas teach mostly idleness, threatening further cuts to funding over their failure to teach core curriculum subjects.
Herzog’s comments came at a ceremony for winners of the annual Jerusalem Unity Prize, created in 2015 in memory of three Israeli teens — Gil-ad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach, and Naftali Fraenkel — who were kidnapped and killed by terrorists in the West Bank a year earlier.
Each year the prize awards three grants to people or bodies working toward promoting internal unity.
Herzog said that as president he prioritized finding shared ground between competing groups of peoples and ideologies, noting the power of words to connect, but also to destroy.
“Some expressions, we cannot tolerate. Neither in politics, nor in the public sphere, nor in the media,” he said.
Mazuz, an influential Sephardic rabbi with ties to the leadership of the opposition Shas party, was previously slammed by Lapid, Liberman and others over his comments.
“I didn’t know that teaching the core curriculum, going out to work, and doing army service is worse than the Nazis,” Liberman wrote, adding that in the Talmud it is written that the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because of “baseless” hatred among the Jewish people.
Lapid mentioned that his family had suffered at the hands of actual Nazis in a tweet Sunday. “Rabbi Mazuz, the Nazis killed my grandfather in a concentration camp, tried to murder my father in a ghetto,” he wrote.
The rabbi has been at the center of controversy in the past.
In 2020, he drew condemnation when he said the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in Israel was divine retribution for gay pride parades around the world. In 2016, he attributed the collapse of a Tel Aviv parking garage that killed six people to Shabbat desecration.
Israeli leaders have warned of growing hatred, division and incitement in society, particularly since the formation of the current coalition of disparate parties from left, right and center.
This month saw a right-wing activist indicted for sending threatening letters containing bullets to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his family.
Lapid has said he’s received threats as well, including one message that expressed a wish he would die from cancer and likened him to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
In January, a man was charged for threatening Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana, saying he would suffer the same fate as assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin over his plans to reform issues of state and religion, thereby weakening the ultra-Orthodox hegemony on various issues.