Israel's chief rabbi came under fire on Monday after footage emerged showing him labeling immigrants from the former Soviet Union
as "religion hating gentiles."
Yitzhak Yosef launched his vituperative attack at a rabbinical conference held in Jerusalem last week, where he criticized the Law of Return, which makes millions of non-Jewish - according to halacha - descendants of full-blooded Jews, eligible for Israeli citizenship.
"Tens or hundreds of thousands of gentiles came to the country because of the law determining who's Jewish," said Rabbi Yosef. "There are many, many gentiles here, some are communists, hostile to religion, haters of religion. They're not even Jewish, they're gentiles."
The Sephardic rabbi went on to accuse the members of the Russian-speaking community of voting for political parties that "incite against the ultra-Orthodox and the religion."
Yosef also accused the state of deliberately inviting immigrants from the former Soviet Union to the country in an effort to weaken the political power of the ultra-Orthodox public. "They brought them here as leverage against the ultra-Orthodox," the chief rabbi said. "They brought these complete gentiles to weaken the ultra-Orthodox vote during elections. Unfortunately, we see the fruits of their incitement."
Yosef spoke in front of rabbis before their departure to Jewish communities in the Diaspora and advised them not to engage in conversion abroad because of the complexity and halachic sensitivity of the issue.
He then attacked other rabbis who, in his view, are too lenient in requirements for conversion to Judaism, and called to question the faith of those who converted in state rabbinical courts, which are supervised by Yosef himself.
One of the rabbis criticized by Yosef in his speech is a former MK from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Rabbi Haim Amsalem, who condemned the chief rabbi's statements.
"It's a tragedy that at the top of the rabbinical pyramid in Israel sits a rabbi who does not know his place. All he does is slander and hurt anyone who comes to his mind under the pretext of sacredness," Amsalem said. "He thinks that he'll buy his place among the rabbinical elite by smearing and fighting against lenient conversion which brings people together, but his words show time and time again his lack of understanding in conversion rules."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also denounced Yosef's statements and called the aliyah from the post-Soviet states a "huge blessing to the State of Israel and the Jewish people."
"This is an outrageous statement that has no place in the discourse," said Netanyahu. "My government will continue to facilitate immigration and integration into the country of our brothers and sisters from the former Soviet Union."
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who himself immigrated from Ukraine 1987, also condemned Yosef's statements and called the immigration from former USSR an "integral part of Israeli society."
"We fulfilled our dream of returning to Zion and it's impossible to imagine the State of Israel without the Soviet immigration's major contributions," he said. "Even during the election campaign there is no room for such invalid discourse of hatred and division."
Another lawmaker among the rabbi's critics was Yisrael Beytenu Chairman Avigdor Liberman, who immigrated from Moldova and whose party caters mainly to Israel's Russian-speaking community. He branded Yosef's statements as "racist and bluntly anti-Semitic."
"This must not be tolerated," said Liberman. "We demand [Yosef's] immediate suspension from office and we will campaign to elect a chief rabbi from the religious Zionism, who will know how to contain and embrace - and not separate and divide.
"Just a few days ago, Israel's chief rabbi mocked the secular public, advising them to go to Ashdod [a city with a large Russian-speaking community-ed] and eat pork and today he is inciting against the Russian-speaking public, who work, serve in the army in regular service and as reserves, pay taxes and contribute to the well-being of the state."
Liberman then called on leaders of other parties to strongly condemn Yosef's statements in order to prevent "a critical blow to the delicate fabric of Israeli society."
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, however, defended the rabbi and tongue-lashed at Liberman instead. "We fully support Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef in the face of the political attacks against him," said Litzman.
"The last person who can preach to others about incitement is Avigdor Liberman - a person who can't stop stoking the flames between different sectors in society and acts maliciously, without any public responsibility in order to divide and damage the delicate fabric of the various sectors in Israel."
Litzman has been heavily criticized for his alleged involvement in allowing a former Melbourne principal evade sexual abuse charges.
The Israel Police has recommended that Litzman be charged with fraud and breach of trust for suspicions that, as deputy health minister, he pressured ministry employees to skew Leifer's psychiatric evaluations to say that she was not fit to stand trial.