Israeli High Court Orders Disciplinary Hearing of Safed's Chief Rabbi for Racist Comments

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
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Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu (center) in Mercaz Harav yeshiva, Jerusalem, 2015.
Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu (center) in Mercaz Harav yeshiva, Jerusalem, 2015.Credit: Mercaz Harav Yeshiva
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

Israel's High Court of Justice ordered that Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, whose salary is paid by the state, be subject to a disciplinary hearing for a series of comments he made about the Arab and LGBTQ communities.

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In reaction, Eliyahu’s office said: “We’re talking about a politically motivated court. If we were talking about the freedom of speech of their people, then there is no problem portraying a guillotine or the prime minister in a hangman’s noose. If we’re talking about rabbis or religious people, they will bend the law to void this fundamental right. We will not stop telling the truth. We have no faith in this court.”

The ruling was issued by Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, and Justices Isaac Amit and Alex Stein. The latter, the main author of the ruling, stated that the decision by former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked not to discipline Eliyahu was the result of a “substantial flaw in judgment” and was “extremely unreasonable.”

This will be the first time a municipal rabbi will be subject to disciplinary action. By law, the authority to discipline rabbinical court judges and city rabbis lies with the justice minister.

Rabbi Shmuel Aliyahu, Ramle, Israel, 2014. Credit: Nir Kafri

Stein cited several remarks made about “entire population groups” and “forbidden political” comments that justified Eliyahu’s being disciplined. However, he noted that a rabbi, despite his being a state employee, is permitted to call on the public not to rent apartments to Arabs, or to come out against women singing, as Eliyahu has done, if this constitutes a “halakhic message” – an interpretation of Jewish religious law.

“A rabbi in Israel, as part of his rabbinical freedom of expression and in keeping with his role, is permitted to speak from his own religious-Zionist perspective, to say words of Torah as he understands them, and to transmit to his adherents – who are not considered a captive audience – any Halakhic message he sees fit, so long as it is indeed a Halakhic message that is truly and innocently being promulgated as such,” Stein wrote.

Nevertheless, Stein ruled that some of Eliyahu’s statements “include insults and incitement that are not in the realm of Torah and Halakha.” Thus, in 2018, the rabbi said, “In our days we must try to make sure that anyone who raises a hand against a Jew should be killed, revenge must be taken. Even if he didn’t kill but just hit [a Jew] or wanted to kill him.”

The rabbi added, “It’s important to make the law so that it will be clear to everyone, including the murderers, that a terrorist, male or female, who comes to kill Jews – it’s the end of them. It’s an obligation and a mitzvah for soldiers, policemen and civilians to annihilate them. Not to neutralize them or to get control over them, but to rid the world of them. And those who defend them bring bloodshed to the world.”

Another example cited by Stein was something Eliyahu said in 2019: “The Arabs are the same Arabs and the sea is the same sea. They say that they have the same hatred of Israel in every place that they see Jews, they do harm. Just now there were Jews in Germany. They were beaten by Arabs, it doesn’t matter where you are.”

According to the rabbi, “Every place they see Jews, they kill, they don’t care if they are Jews in Israel, Jews in Tel Aviv or [West Bank settlement] Elon Moreh or Paris or Buenos Aires, it doesn’t matter to them.”

Stein also said Eliyahu must face disciplinary measures for defamation of state institutions. The rabbi said that police investigations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were “a known practice of those who failed at the ballot box” and a plot “to void the voter’s desire and put someone who does their will in power.” Eliyahu added: “They must be stopped. It’s a danger to both democracy and to the Land of Israel. The people elected Benjamin Netanyahu and you don’t bring down a prime minister because of cigars or meetings with journalists. They didn’t bring down Shimon Peres for this and we won’t let them do it to Netanyahu.”

The High Court’s decision was made in response to a petition demanding disciplinary action against Eliyahu. After the petition was filed, Shaked held a telephone conversation with Eliyahu in December 2017, and met with him in March 2019. During these conversations, Eliyahu was warned that he must express himself with sensitivity and respect toward various communities. Former Justice Minister Amir Ohana also met with Eliyahu in December 2019 and told him to refrain from racist and political statements. However, the Supreme Court justice ruled that these conversations were insufficient.

According to Stein, “The case before us is one of those exceptional cases that require our intervention in the decisions of the disciplinary institutions [Shaked and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit] due to the substantive flaw in their judgment regarding Rabbi Eliyahu’s case.”

Justice Alex Stein, Jerusalem, 2018.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Stein added, “It seems, ostensibly, that some, though not all, of his public statements have crossed the red line that separates what a municipal rabbi is allowed to say and disseminate in public from what he is not allowed to say and disseminate in public.”

Hayut emphasized Stein’s ruling, writing, “In a multicultural society such as ours, finding the balance between upholding freedom of expression and assuring the functioning of the public service and the public’s confidence in it is a complex mission. Public confidence is influenced in part by the remarks of public servants, certainly those who hold senior positions.”

Justice Amit supported Stein’s ruling, but objected to the broad freedom of expression Stein had granted municipal rabbis so long as Halakhic matters were at issue. “In my opinion, things that may provoke controversy and animosity between different streams and communities in Israeli society are not required in the respondent’s role as municipal rabbi, and they should not be viewed a ‘a Halakhic message’ aimed at his community,” Amit wrote. Moreover, he added, “The word ‘Halakha’ isn’t a magic word that is meant to rebuff and deter judicial review.”

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