Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef should apologize for the offensive comments he made against non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, whom he alleged were part of a state conspiracy to weaken the electoral strength of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community.The Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot posted a video on Tuesday of Yosef speaking at a rabbinic conference in Jerusalem last week. “Hundreds of thousands, or tens of thousands, of goyim [non-Jews] came to Israel under the law defining who is a Jew,” he raged. “There are many, many goyim here; some of them are communists, enemies of religion, haters of religion. They aren’t Jewish at all; they are complete goyim. They vote for parties who incite against haredim and against religion. And they go to church every Sunday.”The chief rabbi then made the conspiratorial claim, which has no factual basis, that these immigrants “were brought to Israel so that they would be a counterweight to the haredi community” during elections.Yosef’s comments were, understandably, blasted by Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, whose supporters are primarily voters from the former Soviet Union.“We are demanding his immediate suspension, and will work in the future so that a chief rabbi from the religious-Zionist community will be elected who will know how to include and embrace, and not divide,” said Liberman, urging other party leaders to join his call.Rabbi Seth Farber, head of the Itim advocacy organization and co-founder of the Giyur K’Halacha network of independent Orthodox conversion courts, said Yosef had “cast aspersions on the Jewish people and distanced people from Judaism,” calling his comments “a mortal blow to our social cohesion as a people.”To whom was Yosef referring when he made these harmful comments? According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, about 448,000 people in the country (almost 5% of the population) are neither Jewish nor Arab, with the vast majority being non-Jewish immigrants who made aliyah after 1989 under the Law of Return.More than a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union came to Israel in the decade following the collapse of Communism, almost a third of whom are not halachicly Jewish, not being born to a Jewish mother.Under the Law of Return, however, a spouse, child or grandchild of a Jew is granted citizenship in the State of Israel under the so-called grandchild clause. The rationale behind the legislation was that if the Nazis considered people Jewish even if they didn’t have a Jewish mother but had a Jewish grandparent, then Israel should, too.That logic escaped the chief rabbi.His divisive and derogatory message has backfired. The aliyah from the former Soviet Union has been a huge boost to the Jewish state in every way, and their contributions in all spheres, from medicine to hi-tech, should be welcomed, not spurned.If anything, the chief rabbinate should be helping those abroad and in Israel who want to convert to Judaism, rather than denigrating their status. Ultimately, the real problem is the Chief Rabbinate and rabbis like Yosef.This is an opportunity for Israel’s political leaders to come together, to break the chief rabbinate’s monopoly and recognize the legitimacy of other forms of Judaism that are more embracing and inclusive of both halachicly valid Jews as well as those Jews deemed by the Chief Rabbinate to be outside of Halacha.
Yosef’s comments did not come out of the blue. They are reflective of a highly politicized and polarized worldview that is harmful to the Jewish state and the Jewish religion. The publication of his speech was made, coincidentally, on the Tenth of Tevet, a fast day marking the siege of Jerusalem by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar that led to the destruction of the First Temple.
The chief rabbi's comments are just the latest reason why the Chief Rabbinate needs to be abolished, and rabbis like him need to stop getting paid a salary from the state.
If the government has any dignity, it should do the right thing and remove Yosef from his position. He cannot carry on serving as Israel’s chief rabbi.