February 22, 2020

A Rabbi’s Fighting Words

Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef; Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef probably isn’t a complete idiot although at times what he says might imply he is. On Jan. 7 Israelis woke up to discover its rabbi used harsh language to smear an entire category of the population. “Hundreds or tens of thousands of gentiles came to Israel because of the law of who is a Jew,” the rabbi said, referring to the Law of Return.

He continued, “There are many, many non-Jews here, some of them communists, hostile to religion, haters of religion. They are not Jews at all. Gentiles. Then they vote for parties that incite against the ultra-Orthodox and against the religion.” 

Condemnation immediately rained down on his head. He deserved every bit of it and then some. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called his words “outrageous,” and said, “Immigration from the former Soviet Union is a huge boon to the State of Israel and the Jewish people.” Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White Party said the rabbi should apologize for his hurtful language.

However, I’d like to say a word in his defense. Well …  not in defense of him and his statement but of a necessary discussion the chief rabbi intentionally or unintentionally prompted. 

No doubt the rabbi compromised his position by making a divisive and tactless statement. He also proved to be ignorant of many important and relevant facts if a serious discussion is to take place. The law is not “who is a Jew,” immigrants are not “communists” and most of them don’t hate religion. Israel didn’t invite them in, as he claimed, as a “counterweight to Charedis.” Yet, he said something that merits consideration. He said many of the immigrants who come to Israel under the Law of Return are not Jewish; according to his interpretation of Jewishness, that is true. This raises the question: Does this law still serve its original aim? Is this law that allows for an immigration of a grandchild of Jews still crafted in a way that makes sense?

These are not easy questions that can be dismissed by cries of xenophobia and bigotry. The rabbi has an opinion: He wants immigration of Jews. The initiators of the Law of Return had similar intentions. They wanted Israel to be a haven for Jews. They wanted Israel to have a majority Jewish population. To have that, one must have at least an idea, a working definition, of who is a Jew.

But Israel has no such thing and some of its leaders, including institutions that must deal with aliyah, are concerned with this problem.

The chief rabbi has a definition he deems the only legitimate definition of Jewishness. The Israeli public’s opinion — outcry and fury aside — is closer to the rabbi’s definition than you might think. Although the Law of Return largely is supported as a concept, the details make it less consensual. Nine out of 10 Israelis want Jews to make aliyah and get immediate citizenship and rights, but only about half (53%, according to the Guttman-Avi Chai survey) support this option for non-Jewish spouses of Jews; even fewer Israelis support a law that benefits the non-Jewish grandchildren of Jews — the current law.

This goes back to the question: Is a grandchild of a Jew also Jewish? What if his or her mother isn’t Jewish? What if he or she admits they aren’t Jewish?

Does the Law of Return still serve its original aim?

Israel’s history with questions concerning the definition of Jewishness is unflattering. There always is a rabbi who issues inflammatory statements; a politician who attempts to capitalize on the debate to gain a few more votes; a decision maker under pressure of his coalition; a think tank offering advice (you usually can guess it will be based on the identity of its funders); a Jewish luminary from the United States who gets offended; a delegation of Jewish machers on an emergency mission (but who stays at a nice hotel); and an article in an important international paper calling Israel racist.

Election time is the worst season to start such a discussion. When a Russian party (Yisrael Beiteinu) fights ultra-Orthodox parties (Shas and UTJ), you can’t expect anything other than political rhetoric. But not having a discussion isn’t a solution either. Not having a discussion only means an unhealthy situation of unclear purpose will not change. Not having a discussion means important questions concerning the identity and future of Israel will be decided by the wrong institutions — the bureaucracy and the courts — rather than the people.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain.