Israeli chief rabbi in hot water over disparaging comments about Russian Jews

The Israeli chief rabbi said many of the Russian immigrants are non-Jews and are “enemies of religion.”

By David Isaac, World Israel News 

Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef was roundly condemned by both sides of Israel’s political aisle, with some calling for his resignation, after he said last week that as many as “hundreds of thousands” of immigrants from the former Soviet Union were not Jewish.

The chief rabbi said, “There are many, many non-Jews here, some of them are communist, enemies of religion, haters of religion. They are not Jewish at all, [they are] non-Jews.”

He also suggested that they were brought as part of a conspiracy to weaken the ultra-Orthodox.

They “were brought to Israel so that they would be a counterweight to the ultra-Orthodox, so that when there are elections there won’t be many [Knesset seats] for the ultra-Orthodox. That’s why they were brought to Israel, total non-Jews, really completely non-Jews,” he said.

The chief rabbi made his remarks at a rabbinical conference in Jerusalem last week. But his comments only came to light on Tuesday after Israeli paper Yediot Ahronot posted a video clip of him making the statements.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu swiftly condemned the remarks on Tuesday, calling them “outrageous.”

Netanyahu tweeted, “The immigration of people from the former Soviet Union is a blessing to the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Under my leadership the government will continue to work for the immigration and absorption of our former Soviet brothers and sisters into Israel.”

Opposition leader and Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz also attacked the rabbi’s comments. He tweeted on Tuesday: “By senseless hatred the Temple was destroyed. The Sephardic Chief Rabbi would do well if he apologized as soon as possible.

“The Zionist vision has encouraged immigration and the in-gathering of the exiles to the Land of Israel and the State of Israel since the start of Zionism. We were based militarily, economically and culturally partly on immigration from the Soviet Union – immigration which brought with it a blessed cultural, scientific and social cargo,” he tweeted.

However, from a purely religious perspective, the Sephardic chief rabbi’s comments were not entirely without basis.

A sizeable majority of Jews from the former Soviet Union are not Jewish as defined by religious law. Arutz7 reports that Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics says over 430,000 people are non-Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who came to Israel after 1989 under the Law of Return, according to which they had at least one Jewish grandparent.

According to Jewish law, the mother must be a Jew.

Concern has been raised recently that Avigdor Liberman, head of the Israel Beiteinu party, whose support largely comes from Russian immigrants, is exploiting the anti-religious, and possibly even anti-Semitic, attitudes of some of his base in his current political campaign.

In fact, a group of Russian Jews formed to expose his “poisonous” messaging in Russian.

“Israel Beiteinu’s campaign is arousing dormant anti-Semitism that exists here in Israel,” said Natalia Rothenberg, who organized the group. “When they say that ‘the hareidim are parasites’ and are ‘destroying society,’ the direct result is horrific anti-Semitic reactions online against the ultra-Orthodox and the religious public.”

Liberman attacked the chief rabbi’s comments, describing them as “anti-Semitic and racist.” He called for Yosef to resign and to be replaced with someone who won’t “separate and divide” people.

Health Minister Yaakov Litman, a member of the haredi United Torah Judaism party, blasted Liberman in response.

“The last man who can speak and preach to others about incitement is Avigdor Lieberman. The person, who ever since he identified incitement and hatred as an engine for collecting votes, doesn’t cease to incite.”