Israel's Chief Rabbi Should Be Disciplined for Racist Comments, Judicial Ombudsman Says

Controversial comments by Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef targeting Israelis from former Soviet state prompted backlash, with Netanyahu labeling them 'outrageous'

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
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Israel's Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.
Israel's Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.Credit: Moti Milrod
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef should face disciplinary proceedings for making racist comments targeting immigrants from Russia and former Soviet states, the ombudsman of the Israeli judiciary Uri Shoham said Thursday. Yosef had called Russian immigrants to Israel "haters of religion" and "complete Gentiles.”

Shoham, a retired Supreme Court justice, instructed Religious Services Minister Yitzhak Vaknin to hold a disciplinary hearing for Yosef in response to a complaint filed by Avigdor Lieberman, the chairman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, against the contentious comments.

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Shoham accepted the complaint against Yosef, who as part of his job as chief rabbi also serves as the senior religious court judge or rabbinic judge in the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem. Shoham said that the statements in question are in clear violation of the ethics rules for rabbinic judges, which stipulate that a rabbinic judge must avoid expressing an opinion publicly on a controversial and non-legal matter.

Yosef had been warned in the past, Shoham said, but he refused to accept the ethics rules. Shoham’s decision is only a recommendation, but if Vaknin does not accept it – the decision could be used as the basis of a petition to the High Court of Justice on the matter, asking the court to order Vaknin to conduct a disciplinary proceeding against Yosef. The disciplinary process against a state employee has no criminal sanctions, but could include disciplinary measures such as suspension or firing.

The complaint was filed after Yosef gave a speech in January at a rabbinic conference in which he cast doubt on the Jewishness of Russian immigrants, saying they are “Gentiles who vote for all sorts of anti-religious parties.”

Shoham has no authority to hear the matter concerning Yosef, said Yitzhak Elharar the head of Yosef’s bureau. Yosef’s position as a religious court judge is just a small part of his authority as chief rabbi who was speaking about the matter of the problems of conversion, which is a matter that is part of his job as chief rabbi, Elharar added.

The complainants are trying to mislead the ombudsman while distorting what Yosef said and taking his comments out of context, and it seems to be for political propaganda as part of election campaigning, Elharar said.

In the remarks, which came to light on January 7, 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.

In December, 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned Yosef's 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."

Aaron Rabinowitz contributed to this report.

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