Top national religious rabbi says deadly quake in Turkey, Syria is divine justice

Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, who is close to Itamar Ben Gvir and the father of a far-right minister, says disaster ‘cleanses the world, makes it better’; some rabbis aghast at comments

Chief Rabbi of Safed Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu speaks at a 'Besheva' group conference, on February 7, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Chief Rabbi of Safed Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu speaks at a 'Besheva' group conference, on February 7, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu, a prominent figure in Israel’s national religious movement, said in a Friday column that a devastating earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria earlier this week, killing tens of thousands, was “divine justice.”

In the article published in Olam Katan, a popular conservative religious right-wing weekly newsletter, Eliyahu, who has close ties to National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, compared the earthquake to the drowning of the Egyptian forces in the Red Sea in the biblical story of Exodus.

“There is no doubt that those who would have seen the Egyptians drowning in the sea and who did not remember the whole event from beginning to end would have been filled with great pity for them and would have tried to save them from drowning,” Eliyahu wrote.

“But the Israelites sang songs because they knew the Egyptians, and understood that these drowners wanted to kill some of them and to continue to enslave the rest. They sang songs because they understood that there was divine justice here intended to punish the Egyptians, who had drowned the children of the people of Israel in the Nile, so that all the wicked in the world would see and be afraid,” he said.

Turning to the massive 7.8-magnitude earthquake, which has killed at least 28,000 people in Turkey and neighboring Syria, Eliyahu said: “God is judging all the nations around us who wanted to invade our land several times and throw us into the sea.”

“This is about Syria — which abused its Jewish residents for hundreds of years in the blood libels of Damascus and others; which invaded Israel three times in order to kill and destroy,” he said.

Cranes remove debris next to destroyed buildings in Antakya, southeastern Turkey, February 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

“We do not know what accounts [need to be settled] with Turkey, which has defamed us in every possible arena. But if God reveals to us and tells us that he is going to judge all our enemies, we just have to look and understand what is going on around us,” Eliyahu said.

“Everything that happens, happens in order to cleanse the world and make it better.”

Eliyahu cited a biblical prophecy of Ezekiel that said that after the biblical promise of the ingathering of the exiles, when all Jews return to the land of Israel, “revenge will come to all the nations around us who have harmed us.”

Some religious rabbis came out against his comments.

Rescue workers stand by a collapsed building in Adiyaman, southern Turkey, Thursday, February 9, 2023. (AP/Emrah Gurel)

“This has troubled me all morning,” said Avraham Stav, a prominent rabbi associated with the Tzohar rabbinical organization and who teaches at the well-regarded Har Etzion yeshiva. “The thought that the entire world is in tears amid the terrible sights and stories in Turkey, and we, the people who brought to the world the tidings that every person is created in [God’s] image, should according to Rabbi Eliyahu rejoice over these horrors.”

He said gladness over the deaths of enemies should be reserved for terrorists, “not thousands of children who have done nothing to us being crushed along with their parents.”

Rabbi Yehuda Gilad wrote that he had read Eliyahu’s comments “again and again and can’t believe it. Thousands of people made in God’s image are buried beneath the ruins of their homes, elderly and infants expiring in terrible agony and we should view this as being to our benefit?”

He said such sentiments are not in line with the teachings of the Torah.

World Jewish Congress President Ron Lauder said he was “aghast and appalled” by Eliyahu’s remarks, adding: “It is inconceivable to me that any human being of any decency, let alone a man who presents himself as a spiritual leader, would not be devastated by the tragic deaths of by now more than 28,000 men, women and children. ”

“Now is a moment for us to commit ourselves to helping and supporting one another, not for the stoking of hatred and divisiveness,” Lauder said.

The Safed rabbi is the father of Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu, of Ben Gvir’s party, and the son of the late Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu who served as Sephardic chief rabbi from 1983 to 1993.

Shmuel Eliyahu has been known for controversial statements and rulings on Jewish law, including one that forbade the rental or sale of Jewish-owned property in Safed to Arabs. He has also criticized the Reform movement, the LGBT community, and women serving in IDF combat units.

Ben Gvir has said in the past he believes Eliyahu should be Israel’s chief rabbi.

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