Ingathering Jewish exiles, even those who think differently

Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef took a page out of former US President Bill Clinton's playbook when he blamed the country's woes on Russian immigrants.

Man blowing the shofar at Ben-Gurion International Airport. (photo credit: HILEL MEIR/TPS)
Man blowing the shofar at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
(photo credit: HILEL MEIR/TPS)
Last week an unknown Yisrael Beytenu MK named Alex Kushnir, who immigrated 28 years ago from Ukraine, infuriated the haredim (ultra-Orthodox), and many who are not ultra-Orthodox, by insinuating that the breakdown of the country’s health system was due to a service the Health Funds provide for some religious women regarding matters of family purity.

His words were called antisemitic by some, first and foremost by ultra-Orthodox politicians.

That same week, Israel’s 
 Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, in comments that only came to light on Tuesday, infuriated the country’s Russian-speaking community, and many who are not Russian speaking, by alleging that immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to Jewish law were brought into the country as part of a conspiracy to weaken the ultra-Orthodox parties and pry power out of their hands.

His words, too, were called antisemitic, first and foremost by Russian-speaking politicians, such as Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman.

And therein lies the danger of a never-ending election cycle: it pits tribe against tribe in an ugly spiral of attempted marginalization of one sector by the other.

But while Kushnir is an unknown MK, Yosef is one of the country’s two chief rabbis, a position whose role – at least theoretically – is to unify, not divide.

“The chief rabbinate will have an impact by virtue of its constant efforts to bring people together, to inject a spirit of harmony among all parties and factions, and to strengthen the Torah and its honor in the Holy Land and throughout the world,” Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote idealistically of the position when he was appointed chief rabbi in 1921.

Although the chief rabbinate has long failed to live up to those lofty goals, at a minimum it should be expected that Yosef not tear a sheet out of the playbook of former US president Bill Clinton and scold Russian immigrants for not fitting his preferred political mold.

Clinton, in comments in 2010, slammed the Russian-speaking immigrants as being the central obstacle to reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

“An increasing number of young people in the IDF are the children of Russians and settlers, the hardest-core people against a division of the land. This presents a staggering problem,” Clinton said. “It’s a different Israel. Sixteen percent of Israelis speak Russian.”

Clinton vented against the Russian immigrants because they did not live up to his vision as to what Israelis should be, and how they should think.

What both Clinton and Yosef need to understand, however, is that the Russian-speaking immigrants in the country are here by right – by virtue of the 
Law of Return which is one of this country’s foundational pieces of legislation – not because they need to fit a particular political preference to push forward a particular political or social agenda.

That the Russian-speaking immigrants, according to Clinton, are least interested in striking a peace deal with the Palestinians, may mean that there was a problem with the peace deal he put forward and wanted to see implemented, not necessarily with the immigrants.

Likewise, if Yosef is concerned that the ultra-Orthodox are losing political power as a result of the immigration of Russian-speakers – including “completely non-Jews” – who will never vote for a religious party, maybe the problem is with the parties, rather than with the immigrants.

The massive immigration of Jews from the Former Soviet Union that began in 1990 was the fulfillment of the dream of a generation: to free Soviet Jewry. And their freedom and massive influx into Israel has fundamentally altered the Jewish state – and for the better.

Israel is economically, culturally, scientifically, technologically and militarily at a different place than it was before the immigrants – including, yes, the non-Jewish ones coming under the Law of Return – flocked into the country. The Start-Up Nation would probably not have been if this reservoir of educated, talented, work-oriented people had not moved here.

Their presence in Israel – what they have contributed to this country – needs to be extolled, not condemned. They need to be welcomed, not made to feel like outsiders, especially by the chief rabbi, and even if he might not be particularly thrilled by their voting patterns.

The age-old Jewish yearning for ingathering the exiles means just that, ingathering the exiles, not just those exiles who think – or vote – like you.