Accused Racists Leading Field in Chief Rabbi Race

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The race for chief rabbi of Israel has been getting ugly since the collapse of a proposed deal between Shas and Jewish Home to elect their respective favorites. The deal would have amended the Chief Rabbinate laws to permit a second term for the incumbent Sephardic chief rabbi, a Shas favorite, and eliminated the age limit to permit the election of a favorite of the hardline, pro-settler of Jewish Home. The deal collapsed over liberal support for a more moderate Ashkenazi contender, as well as opposition to anything that benefits Shas.

The leading candidate for Sephardic chief rabbi is now Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Safed and son of the late Mordechai Eliyahu, former chief rabbi and longtime spiritual mentor of the National Religious Party. The younger Eliyahu is currently the subject of furious behind-the-scenes politicking by liberals who want to stop his candidacy, led by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Labor Party lawmaker Eitan Cabel. The reason: a long record of extreme racism, including his notorious 2010 dictum forbidding the sale or rental of homes to Arabs.

Livni, whose Justice Ministry would be in charge of Chief Rabbi Eliyahu (since the Sephardic chief rabbi is the head of the rabbinical court system, which is under the Justice Ministry), met with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein last month to look for legal ways to block Eliyahu. Weinstein was dubious about the legal grounds, according to Nahum Barnea in today’s Yediot Ahronot. Barnea quoted Livni as insisting: “This is intolerable. After all, we’re talking about the position of chief rabbi. What will his election do to Israel’s image abroad? He mustn’t be elected.”

Livni wanted to base legal action on an indictment issued against Eliyahu in 2002 on charges of racism after he called for the expulsion of the Arab population of Safed. Weinstein pointed out that the state attorney’s office dropped the charges in 2006 after Eliyahu agreed to apologize, which would undermine the legal grounds for blocking him now.

On Wednesday, however (presumably after Barnea had filed his Friday Supplement column), Haaretz reported that Weinstein had agreed to conduct a legal inquiry if Eliyahu’s name is formally put in nomination.

The Haaretz story linked above includes some of Eliyahu’s most controversial quotes. The Israel Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has put together a longer list of Eliyahu’s most objectionable public statements.

Barnea points out, however, that stopping Eliyahu could be a mixed blessing. His main competition, Barnea reports, is Rabbi Avraham Yosef, a son of the former Sephardic chief rabbi and current Shas party mentor Ovadia Yosef. Though less prominent in the press, Barnea says, Yosef could be considered even more racist—and misogynistic and anti-democratic, to boot—than Eliyahu. In part this is a reflection of their ideological backgrounds: Eliyahu comes from the religious Zionist movement and recognizes the legitimacy of the state and its institutions, while Yosef emerges from a Haredi worldview that’s much more ambivalent on the question. It’s said, though, that Avraham Yosef is considered something of an extremist even within his own family.

To make his case, Barnea put together a list of parallel statements by the two for comparison. Here’s my translation:

Friday’s Haaretz has a story by Yair Ettinger reporting that a religious-Zionist website has taken down some comments made by Eliyahu in 2005, railing against the Gaza disengagement, that could further damage his candidacy.

Written by

J.J. Goldberg

J.J. Goldberg

Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).

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Accused Racists Leading Field in Chief Rabbi Race

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