The oft outspoken parliamentarian MK Elazar Stern of Hatnua caused fresh controversy on Tuesday in criticizing hard-line national-religious leader Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu during a radio interview.
Stern was speaking on the Galei Israel radio station about his proposals for reforming the conversion process that have come under fire from several quarters in the rabbinic world, including from Eliyahu, who serves as the chief rabbi of Safed and is a leading figure of the die-hard wing of the national-religious community.
The rabbi, along with dozens of other rabbis from the national-religious community, wrote to the prime minister in August to demand that he halt the proposed reforms, claiming that they would harm the reliability of the conversion system.
Speaking on Tuesday morning, Stern, who is himself from the national-religious community, used a nickname to refer to the rabbi, calling him “Shmulik Eliyahu,” refusing to call him a rabbi.
Stern, who did not initially respond to the letter, heavily criticized the rabbis who signed the letter during the interview on Tuesday.
“It’s not just that they [the rabbis] don’t know what they’re signing, or even if they’re signatories, they’re not even reading the proposal they’re coming out against,” said Stern. “It’s too complicated for them. They deal with cheap politics and stupid battles. They only engage in politics and are causing one big desecration of God’s name.”
He said that he and others had undertaken in-depth work on the issue in consultation with senior rabbis. He claimed that the criticism was coming from rabbis who were not involved in the process and felt slighted as a result.
“It appears that to these rabbis it doesn’t sit well that they were not consulted, or they weren’t elected chief rabbi, or they want to get elected one day, or they’re stuck in Safed,” Stern said.
Eliyahu was a candidate to be Sephardi chief rabbi in the 2013 elections for the Chief Rabbinate, but lost out to Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef. Radio host Kalman Liebskind corrected Stern, referring to him as “Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu.”
The MK retorted, “I mean Shmulik Eliyahu who is also referred to as a rabbi, to my great regret. A rabbi who deals in politics, and mudslinging, and racism, and lies and running to the press, if you want you can call him rabbi, in my eyes he’s a Talmud student.”
Eliyahu is known for controversial statements he has made about Israel’s Arab minority. In 2006, he was indicted on grounds of racial incitement for comments he made to the media in 2002 and 2004, but the charges were dropped in return for which the rabbi apologized for his comments, and pledged not make similar statements in the future.
The moderate national-religious group Beit Hillel criticized Stern for his outburst and said he had belittled a Torah scholar in a way unfitting of the public debate.
The organization said in a statement that it disagreed with Eliyahu’s position on the conversion debate, but added that “personal attacks should be uprooted from the public discourse...the dignity of a person must always be respected, especially that of a rabbi.”
Stern’s proposals were originally put forward as a legislation but intense opposition from elements within Bayit Yehudi, especially those loyal to the influential Eliyahu, stymied the bill, with the party threatening the stability of the coalition over the issue.
At the end of the last Knesset session, it appeared that the reforms would be enacted via an official government decision instead of legislation. Talks on the issue have continued during the Knesset’s summer recess.
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