Rabbi's "genocidal" statements could torpedo Mideast talks
Israeli Rabbi Ovadia Yosef
Israel's former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef may be a lousy diplomat, but he sure knows a thing or two about timing. During his weekly Shabbat sermon, held just days before the start of a new round of peace negotiations to help resolve the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the good rabbi expressed his hope that President Abbas (“an evil hater of Israel”) and the Palestinian people would be wiped from the face of the earth. No, wait - wasn't that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Right, here we go: Palestinians are “evil, bitter enemies… All these evil people should perish from this world,” the 89 year-old Iraqi-born spiritual leader told his followers. “God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians.”
It’s usually easy to the comments of an old man to mere old age, but that is a lot harder to do in the case of someone with the reputation of Rabbi Yosef. This distinguished scholar is not only deeply revered in Sephardi and Mizrahi communities worldwide, but serves as the spiritual leader of the ultra-orthodox Shas party in the Knesset, which forms part of Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government and holds four cabinet positions. The rabbi’s greatest influence lies in the sphere of religion, where he is regarded as something of a liberal among his ultra-orthodox colleagues. His findings sound odd to outsiders, but pull a lot of weight within ultra-orthodox circles. For example, he has ruled that it is acceptable for a man to listen to a recording of a woman singing via radio or a recording device, as long as he has never seen the woman in person. (Viewing her photograph does not count as seeing her in person.) He has also revealed that it is acceptable for girls and boys to study together up to the age of nine. After that – not so much.
It is when he ventures into politics that the problems start. The rabbi has made hurtful comments about Arabs before, saying in 2001 that “it is forbidden to be merciful to them (...) You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable." He has made frequent statements calling them “snakes” and “accursed wicked ones” that “God was sorry” for ever creating in the first place.
But Ovadia Yosef is an equal opportunity hater. A decade ago, and again last year, he generated headlines by essentially claiming that Holocaust victims had it coming – although his followers unequivocally state that he means no such thing. ''The six million Jews, all those poor people who were lost at the hands of those evil ones, the Nazis, may their names be blotted out -- was it for nothing? No. This was all the reincarnation of earlier souls, who sinned and caused others to sin and did all sorts of forbidden acts. They returned in reincarnation in order to set these things right, and received, those poor people, all those torments and troubles and deaths under which they were killed in the Holocaust." Where did come up with this hurtful notion? A week later he cited a sixteenth century Jewish mystic who had said: "If the soul was not purified entirely the first time, and it left this world, that soul must come back in a reincarnation, even a few times, until it is entirely purified."
Other controversial statements refer to women, gay people, and even parents who send their children to secular schools, who he believes will be punished in this world and the next. Of course, he doesn’t mean any of this, we are told. At least, not literally - or not quite literally. Well, I’ve heard this sort of thing before. I guess it’s all a question of what “mean” means.
So where do we go from here? On Sunday, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, called the rabbi’s remarks “a call for the assassination of President Abbas” and “an incitement to genocide” and is demanding a forceful response on the part of the Israeli government. Philip J. Crowley, a State Department Official, has issued a statement regretting Ovadia Yosef’s comments, saying "As we move forward to relaunch peace negotiations, it is important that actions by people on all sides help to advance our effort, not hinder it."
So far, prime minister Netanyahu’s office has issued a statement saying that the comments “do not reflect Netanyahu’s views, nor do they reflect the stance of the Israeli government.” The statement goes on to say that “Israel plans to take part in peace negotiations out of a desire to advance toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians that will end the conflict and ensure peace, security, and good neighborly relations between the two peoples.”
We’ll have to wait and see if Mr. Netanyahu’s statements have the desired effect, but it is already looking as if – thanks to the rabbi’s comments and a string of other awkward events in recent days – the peace talks are long over before they’ve even begun. It seems that in hatred, like in humor, timing is everything.