Israel's AG Urges Eliyahu to Drop 'Inappropriate' Bid for Chief Rabbi in Light of anti-Arab Remarks

AG Weinstein says comments made by Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, currently Safed's chief rabbi, over the years bring legal difficulties to his candidacy; Weinstein's recommendation is not binding however, as chief rabbi is not a government position.

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Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein informed Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu on Monday evening that it would be inappropriatefor the latter to run for the post of Sephardi chief rabbi, in light of certain contentious remarks and the "legal difficulties" posed by his candidacy.

Eliyahu, the current chief rabbi of Safed and the son of former Sephardi Chief Rabbu Mordechai Eliyahu, has been embroiled in controversy due to anti-Arab statements attributed to him.

The rabbi himself categorically denies having made racist remarks, defending some of his comments as being taken out of context while insisting others were never uttered. "Must I as a rabbi explain why I oppose intermarriage?" he wrote in a letter to Weinstein. "Must I explain why I oppose same-sex marriages or support people becoming observant?"

Weinstein does not have the authority to disqualify Eliyahu from running for the post of Sephardi chief rabbi, since the two positions - one Ashkenazi and the other Sephardi - are not government appointments.

Selection of the chief rabbis is made by an assembly of public representatives. The practical result of Weinstein's stance is that if Eliyahu is elected, the state would not defend any court challenges to the selection.

Among the statements attributed to Eliyahu was one in a 2002 interview to the right-wing Arutz Sheva media outlet, in which he reportedly said that all of the Arab students at the Safed Academic College should be thrown out. "Yes, I am saying this explicitly and am not afraid of anyone," he was quoted as saying, adding "only those who direct their loyalty to the state are entitled to study."

In a 2004 interview to Israel Radio, Eliyahu said: "It is forbidden to sell an apartment to an Arab. Let them live in their own area. We [will live] in our area."

In 2010, he was quoted in Haaretz as saying in reference to Arabs: "I don't expect them to feel that they belong. They are guests [here]."

Eliyahu's office responded to Weinstein's assessment by referring to In the Tisha B'Av fast day that began Monday night, commemorating the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem.

"On the eve of Tisha B'Av, the attorney general has chosen to remove the mask of official hypocrisy and trample democracy," his office said.

Weinstein "had chosen to conduct a field court martial trial for Rabbi Eliyahu and has turned himself into the prosecutor, judge and hangman," and in an "unprecedented step, without authority, without a hearing, and without verifying the allegations, created a new reality in which a candidate that is not favored by the legal elite will not receive a [legal] defense from the authorities," Eliyahu's office added.

Safed chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliyahu, on October 30, 2011.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

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