'Fighters for Justice': Top Israeli Rabbi Defends Jewish Teens Suspected of Murdering Palestinian Woman

Safed municipal rabbi whose salary is paid by the state tells yeshiva students suspected of murder that many leaders start from prison

Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich
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FILE PHOTO: Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu in Safed, Israel, July 2015.
FILE PHOTO: Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu in Safed, Israel, July 2015.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

A highly influential Israeli rabbi said he told the teenagers suspected of murdering a Palestinian woman in the West Bank that they shouldn't fear prison since that's where the road to political power begins, a video of the rabbi speaking to students shows.

Shmuel Eliyahu, the municipal rabbi of Safed and an important personality in the religious Zionist movement, said during a halakha lesson that the legal system is discriminating against the high school boys suspected of murdering Aisha Mohammed Rabi, 47.

Bradley Burston describes his visit to the West Bank with settler leader Daniella WeissCredit: Haaretz

Rabi died in October after settlers threw stones at her vehicle near a West Bank checkpoint south of Nablus.

The rabbi added that he talked with the boys at the Pri Haaretz yeshiva high school in the West Bank settlement of Rehelim, five of whom are suspected of the murder.

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File photo: Undated photo of Palestinian Aisha Mohammed Rabi, murdered by stone-throwing in the West Bank in October 2018.

“I told these guys, what’s the deal? What are you being accused of? You threw a stone. Do you know how many stones are thrown in Judea and Samaria about which the army does nothing?”

In a 40-minute video uploaded to YouTube, Eliyahu charges that the state institutions, especially the legal system, are rotten, but the boys shouldn’t fear prison, because “For out of prison he cometh to reign” (Ecclesiastes 4). In other words, the road to political power passed through jail.

Regarding the stone that killed Rabi, the rabbi said that when Arabs throw stones in the West Bank, it’s fine but “if a Jew does – you would alert the whole Shin Bet? What kind of law is this? Where is this law written? Everybody should be equal before the law,” Eliyahu said. He added that the system isn’t corrupt because people make deals with one another behind closed doors, “the system is corrupt because its nature is corrupt.”

The suspect yeshiva boys are warriors and are going to jail because they were fighting the rot, Eliyahu said, and brought the example of his father, Mordechai Eliyahu – who had been chief rabbi in Israel and who sat in prison for nine months. “Why? Because he fought the corrupt system. He sat in jail and got beaten and finally became chief rabbi. Is there any connection between these two things? Ecclesiastes says, yes. The one who cares, who shouts, who protests… he might be put in prison but ultimately, will get out and reign.”

His father, Mordechai Eliyahu, had belonged to the underground movement Brit HaKanaim (“covenant of the zealots”), which aimed to impose Jewish law on the State of Israel and to turn it into a halakhic nation. Mordechai recruited new members, raised funds and located places to hide weapons, but was arrested in 1951 with 40 other members of the radical organization and was sentenced to 10 months in prison.

The son, Shmuel Eliyahu, went on to say that in his conversation with the yeshiva boys suspected of murder, he encouraged them and said that after the wrongs they had suffered they should set out to conquer the government. “How is government conquered? With tanks, besieging the Knesset? Is that the solution? No, there is a much simpler one,” Eliyahu said. “Ultimately you have to take the state’s key positions, and key positions are taken with cleverness and by influencing people.”

Eliyahu went on to list people (“not necessarily positive ones”) who had risen from jail to rule, including Lech Walesa and Nelson Mandela. A pupil can be heard in the background of the tape murmuring “Hitler,” to which the rabbi replied, laughing, “I didn’t want to say that name.” He did mention the name of MK Bezalel Smotrich, party whip for Habayit Hayehudi. “His basic experience is of course a prison cell,” Eliyahu said.

Eliyahu says the boys asked whether that meant that everybody should go to jail. He answered with an idiom praising imprisonment by proxy - “if your friend is arrested, that is helpful. Pay him a little, buy the virtue,” and laughed.

Habayit Hayehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Regarding the Shin Bet security service, which Eliyahu claimed is harder on Jews than on Arab terrorists, he said in the video that he met with senior people in the Jewish department of the Shin Bet, who urged him to condemn an arson of a mosque in Tuba-Zangariyye. He refused, he says, because he didn’t think Jews had done it – Arabs had, following an internal dispute in the village. “In 99.9 percent of their work the Shin Bet does good things, chasing the wicked,” Eliyahu told the yeshiva students in Safed, “but [the incident] was taken and used against Jew.” The Shin Bet is portraying Jews as the perpetrators and Arabs as the victims, he said.

Knesset member Issawi Frej (Meretz) wrote a letter to the attorney general urging that Eliyahu, for whom “incitement against Arabs, women, gays, the legal system and who not has become routine” be arrested without further delay. If there remained any red lines to cross, Eliyahu – a man whose salary is paid for by the public - did it by encouraging murder suspects and supporting terrorism, Frej wrote.

Gilad Kariv, rabbi and executive director of the reform movement in Israel, said that Eiyahu should have been fired from public office a decade ago because of his blatant racism and serial violations of all the rules applicable to public servants. Yet de facto Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked protects him by refusing to subject him to disciplinary measures, Kariv said. Her last notice to the courts, where she said she would settle for a conversation with him, just spurs him onward in his incitement. “It is embarrassing for the State of Israel that a person like Rabbi Eliyahu serves as municipal rabbi and as a member of the main rabbinic council, and it is an embarrassment that the justice minister is giving a backwind to a person like this by dint of silence,” he said.

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