Israel's Chief Rabbi Calls Russian Immigrants 'Communist, Religion-hating Gentiles'

Netanyahu condemns Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef's remarks as 'outrageous.' Politicians and progressive clergy call for his ouster over the tirade at a rabbinical conference

Aaron Rabinowitz
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Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef pictured in 2015
Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef pictured in 2015Credit: Lior Mizrahi
Aaron Rabinowitz

Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef has alleged that masses of immigrants from former Soviet states aren’t Jewish and many are Communist, religion-hating Gentiles.

Yosef said tens or hundreds of thousands of these immigrants also vote for parties that incite against the ultra-Orthodox and religion, in the remarks published by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily on Tuesday, reporting on a rabbinical conference held last week.  

“The 'Who’s a Jew Law' caused a lot of problems,” Yosef said, alluding to the Law of Return, legislation from the 1950's which entitles most Jewish immigrants to automatic citizenship. The law’s definition of Jewish is much broader than that of religious law or Halacha.

“Tens or hundreds of thousands of Gentiles have come to Israel as a result of this law. Gentiles who vote for all sorts of anti-religious parties,” Yosef said.

“I don’t know the exact figure, I didn’t check into it but it’s clear there are at least tens of thousands, masses of Gentiles, whose grandfathers were Jewish and their mothers and grandmothers were gentiles, and they were allowed to immigrate to Israel. There are many, many Gentiles here, some of them Communists, hostile to religion or haters of religion. They aren’t Jews at all, but Gentiles. Then they vote for parties that incite against the haredim and religion,” Yosef said.

Israel brought them to the country “as a counterweight against the haredim so that when elections are held there wouldn’t be a lot of haredim (elected),” he asserted. 

“That’s the reason they brought them here as immigrants, these total Gentiles. We see the fruits of their incitement,” Yosef added.

Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef meeting with President Reuven Rivlin in 2017.
Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef meeting with President Reuven Rivlin in 2017.Credit: Mark Neiman/GPO

Yosef demanded that Israeli rabbis avoid performing conversions to Judaism and slammed those who have done so in the past. 

An estimated 400,000 people living in Israel have no registered religious identity, and have been defined as people “without religion.” Such people are not entitled to marry via the state rabbinical authorities. In addition, some 4,500 Israeli residents are converted to Judaism each year.

Two weeks ago the government published data on immigration showing that a large number of immigrants, particularly those from the former Soviet Union, or Russia and neighboring countries, are not Jewish according to Jewish law or Halacha. Only a third of immigrants from Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova who make up 51 percent of the immigrants for the period of 2012-2019, are Jews, these figures from the Population and Immigration Authority showed. The rest are legally registered as non-Jewish relatives.

Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the remarks in a tweet as "an outrageous statement."

Netanyahu tweeted further that "immigration from former Soviet countries is a huge blessing for Israel and the Jewish people. A government under my leadership will continue to seek further immigration of our brothers and sisters from the former Soviet Union."

Former defense minister and Yisrael Beitenu head Avigdor Lieberman, whose political base is largely derived from the Russian-speaking community, called for Yosef's ouster.

“Only a few days ago the chief rabbi mocked the secular public by advising them to head to Ashdod to eat pork and now he’s inciting against immigrants from Russia and nearby countries, who are hard-working people, serve in the army, do their reserve duty, pay taxes and contribute to the country. The chief rabbi who’s supposed to be a spiritual figure for all is blatantly insulting members of the public. The rabbi’s remarks are racist and anti-Semitic, and cannot be ignored. We demand his immediate suspension and work soon to see that he’s replaced by a Zionist rabbi,” Lieberman said.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director-general of the Reform Movement in Israel also called for Yosef's dismissal.

Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman speaks the Knesset, December 11, 2019.
Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman speaks the Knesset, December 11, 2019. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“Time after time Rabbi Yosef shows himself to be a hateful and prejudiced person. Instead of handling the corruption in the rabbinate Rabbi Yosef is busy dividing the people and trying to turn the rabbinate into a frontline position of the Haredi parties,” he said.

Rabbi Chaim Amsalem, head of rabbinical courts handling conversions, also urged that the rabbi be fired for his comments. “Israel should do all it can to remove this man from this official status,” Amsalem said.

Rabbi Mikie Goldstein, president of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, said: “Such arrogance and shamelessness can only be attributed to someone who is so drunk on power, so much so that he sees no reason to respect the general public.

“The words of this chief rabbi raise the question: is it fitting for someone who undermines the state and its various representatives to serve as a high-level public official? It is well known that the chief rabbinate torments olim (immigrants) from the former Soviet Union; only the official racist ‘approval’ of the chief rabbi of Israel was missing. Not only has the time come for this chief rabbi to pack his bags, but also the era of the chief rabbinate is well and truly over,” Goldstein added.

Torah Ve’avoda, a religious Zionist group dedicated to helping those who aren’t Jewish by religious law said  “we feel great shame at the remarks of the chief rabbi, which are not even accurate, to put it mildly. His exclusionary approach cuts off hundreds of thousands of descendants of Israel who came here to be a part of the Jewish state, and who serve in its army. Furthermore, the chief rabbi who was until a year ago a signatory to the conversion process is harming the religious judges and rabbis handling conversions."

The organization added that "when the chief rabbi speaks in such a way about such a large group of Israeli citizens it’s no wonder that the rabbinate finds itself becoming increasingly irrelevant for most of the Israeli public.”

Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz said “the holy temple was destroyed over hatred. The Sephardic chief rabbi ought to apologize for his remarks. The Zionist vision was to encourage an ingathering of the exiles to Israel since the dawn of Zionism.”

Gantz added that immigrants from Russia and other former Soviet states had contributed a great deal to Israel’s military, economy and culture, and that “Russian speaking Israelis enjoy full equality in Israeli society, they are patriots who serve in the IDF and serve in key positions in the country.”

Rabbi Yosef responded to criticism, saying that his statement did not apply to all immigrants from the former Soviet Union, however reasserted his stance that "there is a minority of immigrants who are not Jews," who are being brought to Israel in large numbers to the detriment of Jews living in the country.

"It's very regrettable that there are those who are offended by the way these matters are blatantly distorted in their presentation by interested political elements, who have been seeking to incite for months against Jewish tradition and Halacha. And it's important to be accurate about these matters," Yosef said.

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