Israelis should emulate American Jewish attempts at unity

The Sephardic chief rabbi’s comments about Russians remind us that the last thing Israel needs is more religious warfare among Jews.

Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef speaks in the city of Tiberias in northern Israel, May 24, 2018. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef speaks in the city of Tiberias in northern Israel, May 24, 2018. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The great divide between the ultra-Orthodox minority and the non-Orthodox majority in the American Jewish community was hard to miss lately. The march against anti-Semitism from Lower Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge was almost exclusively a non-Orthodox affair, even though the point of the exercise was to demonstrate solidarity with the Chassidic victims of a surge of violent anti-Semitic attacks in the Greater New York area.

Though the chasm that separates the two communities is immense, the gap seems to be more the product of indifference than open hostility. But however much we may lament that division, it is a love affair compared to the schism that exists between the haredim and secular Jews in Israel. And the latest needless controversy inflaming tensions between the two sectors illustrates just how counterproductive that discussion can be.

It’s likely that Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef didn’t think he was saying anything particularly egregious when he referred to some of the immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union as “religion-hating gentiles.”

Yosef is right that many Russian Jews are avowedly secular and many are not halachically Jewish, given the prevalence of intermarriage in their country of origin. But he was caught on tape saying the following to a group of rabbis about to be sent overseas as emissaries to Diaspora Jewish communities:

“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.”

Yosef also went on to advise these rabbis not to get involved with conversions to Judaism because of his dim view of even those whose entry into the Jewish people was supervised by Israeli religious judges and Modern Orthodox rabbis. But it was his attack on the Law of Return, allowing anyone with a Jewish grandparent to become an Israeli citizen, which was the real target of his ire.

This is not the first time the chief rabbi has stirred up trouble. In the past, he has been criticized for sermons in which he referred to black people by the derogatory word kushi and likened them to monkeys, though he claimed he was merely quoting a passage from the Talmud. He has also said that secular women who do not dress modestly (by his standards) are like animals. And he claimed at another time that the only legitimate purpose of non-Jews in Israel is to serve Jews.

These statements have generated outrage in the past, yet the context of this recent rhetoric about the Russian community placed him in the middle of the current standoff between Israel’s political parties and their failure to form a government after the last two inconclusive Knesset elections.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz roundly condemned the chief rabbi’s comments. But they were also a gift to the Yisrael Beiteinu Party and its leader, Avigdor Lieberman.

Lieberman’s party has sought to represent the interests of the Russian immigrant community since its founding in the 1990s, and as such, has been both right-wing on security questions and aggressively secular on religion-state issues. Lieberman’s decision to abandon Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing and religious parties has been the main cause of the impasse that has left the Jewish state without a government backed by the majority of the Knesset. His refusal to sit any longer in a Cabinet with the two haredi parties helped him gain ground in the September election. Yosef’s inflammatory attacks on Russians will help him hold on to the votes of those who have come to see the war between the haredim and the rest of Jewry as more important than the conflict with the Palestinians.

American Jews who look on Israel’s internecine warfare among Jews with horror don’t generally realize that these disputes are fundamentally political rather than spiritual. At stake is not so much the legitimacy of the different approaches to Judaism as are issues of power and the ability to dispense money to support religious and educational institutions. And all of that is on top of the issue of the exemptions the haredim get from the mandatory military service that other Israelis perform.

The real pity about the topic to which Rabbi Yosef referred is that it is a real problem that requires leadership from him and other religious leaders. It’s true that many Russian immigrants in Israel do not qualify as Jewish under religious law; however, the majority of them came to Israel to be Jews and have made an enormous contribution to the country, with their children serving in the Israel Defense Forces. Yet rather than ease their conversions, the rabbinate has placed obstacles in front of them. While they say they are defending religious principles—much like their intolerance for liberal denominations—the rabbinate is seeking to defend its power rather than do what is in the interests of the Jewish state and people. And as long as that stands, Lieberman’s antagonism towards the haredim will continue to draw support.

As angry as Israelis become because of provocations such as those provided by Yosef, at least they can put them in a political context that makes it understandable, if not justifiable. But from the outside, it can seem like an incomprehensible form of religious warfare rooted in contempt for other Jews.

This wasn’t the first (nor will it be the last) time a member of Israel’s chief rabbinate will say something appalling. But it’s high time that senior religious leaders began to think more about their obligations to their entire Jewish people, including those who don’t necessarily share their beliefs, and the way they are alienating many from Judaism. Fueling the ongoing wars between the Jews in Israel may seem normal from the inside, but the cost is measured in the way it is driving away from faith those who believe that Yosef is speaking on behalf of Judaism.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_Tobin.

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