Chief Rabbi’s Comments Illustrate Secular, Religious Tensions in Israel

  • The Chief Rabbi spoke against Russian immigrants, especially those that are not officially Jewish.
  • He was rebuked even by Netanyahu, who is aligned with the religious parties.
  • According to Jewish Law, the Chief Rabbi has immunity, which even Netanyahu doesn't have.

Israel is faced with external and internal tensions. External tensions are the confrontations with its neighbors— Lebanon, Syria, and Iran. America is assisting Israel in self-defense of its nation. Israel will not accept the presence of Iran in Syria. In the news on Friday, after a tense week between Iran and America, Israel again attacked storehouses of weapons located at the border of Syria and Iraq.

Israeli, US and UK F-35 participate in the Tri-Lightning joint exercise. June 2019.

After two elections without being able to form a government, the preparations for the third election in March are underway. All the various parties in the Knesset are at work to gain seats. The internal tensions between the secular Israel and religious Israelis reached the news again, involving comments made by the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, Yitzhak Yosef attacking the secular Russian community in Israel.

Sephardic religious leaders are sometimes more rigid than Ashkenazi. Sephardim lived in primarily Muslim nations in the Middle East, where assimilation between Jews and Muslims were less common than Ashkenazi living in Europe. Russian Jews coming from Europe were more influenced by western modern culture than Sephardic.  Russian Jews have secular European influences. The secular Israelis defending Russian immigration requested for the Chief Rabbi to resign.

This week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, and secular Israelis attacked the Chief Rabbi’s statement against Russian immigrants with strictly secular valuesThe Chief Rabbi made a clarification of his remarks, that he gives respect to the Russian community, but not to those that do not respect Judaism. The Sephardic party, Shas, rebuked Netanyahu for reprimanding the Chief Rabbi.

According to Halacha Jewish Law, the Chief Rabbi has immunity, and whatever he says must be accepted, even if there is reason to disagree. Immunity today is questionable. Netanyahu is seeking immunity for public servants— and himself— and it is doubtful he will win in the Knesset. Catholic Priests once had immunity, but Pope Francis has removed immunity for Catholic Priests for sexual abuse. Several clergy and educators in the Orthodox religious sector of Israel have been convicted for sexual abuse, acting in a rabbinical capacity or as educators of Jewish children. 

The source of the problem, which Israel is having uniting the nation together in a majority coalition, is in the conflict between religion and politics. In the past, religion encompassed the whole of life. The Commander General of the army was the religious leader of the nation. Today Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the Supreme Leader of Iran. Iran is ruled by the strict interpretation of Shia Islam.

Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Yitzhak Yosef (center) was condemned by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right), but supported by Shas party leader, Aryeh Deri, left.

In Israel, which is a democracy, the society is divided into many factions in the Jewish world and their minority ethnic factions, including Arabs, Druze, and Christians. The minority ethnic faction is about 15% of the population.  The United Arab List party received 13 seats in the last election, out of 120 mandates in the entire Knesset. The rest of the Israeli population is Jewish, since Israel is a Jewish State. Jews throughout the world can return to their homeland to become citizens of Israel.

The Jewish population is divided between secular Jews— many of whom are either atheist or agnostic— and traditional, Orthodox Jews— who strictly follow the Torah law, called Halacha. The Orthodox religious sector of the population is only 20%. A small portion of the population is hostile to religion.

Religion is an inseparable part of Israeli life. Sabbath and Jewish holidays are respected in government offices as days off from work with pay. Religious private schools receive funding from the Ministry of Education. Israel has provided special housing for the Orthodox communities in various religious settlements.  Some compromise is necessary between the religious and secular communities to make a government after the next elections in March.

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David Wexelman

Author of 5 books on the internet on topics of Jewish mysticism, managing two websites.

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