Following a verbal attack on ultra-Orthodox Jews by a Soviet-born politician, Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, Yitzḥak Yosef, described immigrants from the former Soviet Union as “religion-hating Gentiles.” A recording of this and similar impolitic remarks was then circulated in the press, sparking controversy. Such comments don’t become a public figure, and have a corrosive effect on public discourse in the Jewish state, argues Jonathan Tobin, but they have an even worse effect overseas:
American Jews who look on Israel’s internecine warfare . . . with horror don’t generally realize that these disputes are fundamentally political rather than spiritual. At stake is not so much the legitimacy of different approaches to Judaism as an issue 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 Ḥaredim get from the mandatory military service that other Israelis perform.
The real pity . . . is that [Rabbi Yosef referred to 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 it claims to be defending religious principles, . . . the rabbinate is seeking to defend its power rather than to do what is in the interests of the Jewish state and people.
But 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 says something appalling. But it’s high time that senior religious leaders began to think more about their obligations to the entire Jewish people, including those who don’t necessarily share their beliefs, and about the way they are alienating many from Judaism.