Shas leader: National religious Jews ‘aren’t Jewish’

Bennett rebukes Rabbi Shalom Cohen, a member of Council of Torah Sages, for calling non-Haredi Orthodox ‘Amalek’

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday morning railed against what he called “incitement” by one of the most senior religious figures of Shas. In a video posted Sunday morning (Hebrew) on the Haredi website Kikar Hashabbat, Rabbi Shalom Cohen, a member of Shas’s Council of Torah Sages and the head of the influential Porat Yosef Yeshiva, is seen calling national religious Israelis “Amalek” and suggesting that they aren’t Jews.

Amalek was a Biblical tribe that attacked the Israelites from behind while they wandered in the desert. In the Biblical narrative, its members were designated a special evil deserving of extermination.

Referring to the national religious Israelis by the colloquial Hebrew term for “knit kipa” — the preferred headgear for such Jews — Cohen declared in a sermon delivered Saturday night that “as long as there are knit kippot, the [divine] throne is not whole. That’s Amalek. When will the throne be whole? When there is no knit kipa.”

Bennett did not mince words in response.

“Shame on you,” he wrote on Facebook within an hour of the video’s publication.

“For those who don’t know, Amalek is an expression referring to someone who must be wiped off the face of the earth. No less. At this very moment, thousands of knit-kipa wearers are standing guard from the Syrian border to the Egyptian, from brigade commanders down to the lowliest soldiers, and are spitting blood to defend even the honorable rabbi,” he wrote.

Bennett added: “In these very days, memorial services are being held for my comrades-in-arms who sacrificed their lives in the [2006] Second Lebanon War, some of them secular and others wearers of knit kippot. Some of them fell in ways that earned them medals for valor. The rabbi is calling them, too, Amalek, for God’s sake.”

Bennett bemoaned the fact that Cohen’s words were delivered as he stood next to a seated Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas’s spiritual leader, who is viewed by many Sephardi Israelis as the most influential living rabbi.

Bennett has sought in recent weeks to soften what many ultra-Orthodox leaders see as a hardline tone from the current government, which has pursued higher Haredi participation in military and national service and in the workforce. Part of that effort was apparent in his Sunday message as well.

“These days, the Jewish Home [party] is working tirelessly and successfully to lessen the damage to the world of Torah [from government bills forcing Haredi men to work and enlist in the military],” Bennett wrote. “But the Jewish Home, too, is Amalek.”

In the video of his Saturday evening sermon, Cohen is heard quoting Exodus 17:16, in which Moses declares that “the hand upon the throne of the Lord, the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.”

“The Sages said [in interpreting the Biblical verse] that ‘the throne will not be whole as long as Amalek exists,’” Cohen said. “That throne [hints at] a knit kipa,” since the letters of “throne” — kes — can be read as an acronym of “knit kipa,” or “kipa sruga” in Hebrew.

“As long as there are knit kippot,” Cohen continued, “the throne is not whole. That’s Amalek. When will the throne be whole? When there is no knit kipa.”

Cohen also rejected the appointment of rabbis who wear knit kippot, and said he had expressed his opposition while standing alongside Israel Prize laureate and knit kipa-wearer rabbi Hayim Druckman “and all the people of Amalek.”

“Those are Jews?” Cohen said.

Bennett concluded his own message with a direct political demand. “Even if you’re not in the government, even if there are political disagreements — you must condemn and reject such discourse,” he wrote to Haredi leaders. “I ask and expect that you do it this very morning, before it’s too late. I won’t allow this incitement against the knit kipa-wearing public to continue.”

A spokesperson for Shas declined to comment Sunday morning on the video of Cohen’s sermon or Bennett’s response.

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