Jewish Journal

A Rabbi’s Fatwa

Politics aside, most acknowledge historic significance of pope's trip

by Larry Derfner

Posted on Mar. 23, 2000 at 7:00 pm

After Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, ruler of the Shas (Sephardi ultra-Orthodox) party, caused an uproar this week by pronouncing a kind of Jewish fatwa on liberal Education Minister Yossi Sarid, one of Yosef's minions tried to jump into the fray.

Shlomo Benizri, Israel's minister of health, filed a police complaint against Shulamith Aloni, Sarid's predecessor as Meretz party leader, whom Shas hounded out as education minister in the Rabin government. Aloni's offense this time? After the 79-year-old Yosef declared that God would wipe out Sarid as He had wiped out Haman and Amalek, Aloni said in a radio interview that Yosef "had turned into a sort of Roman Emperor Caligula."

Caligula is remembered for being a mad tyrant. Not so to Shlomo Benizri. After checking his encyclopedia, he found that Caligula was eventually murdered by political enemies. So by comparing Yosef to Caligula, Benizri reasoned, Aloni was calling for Yosef's murder. The minister of health dutifully went to the police and accused Aloni of preaching "wild incitement."

Among the curses Yosef hurled at Sarid during his Saturday night synagogue sermon were these: "Just as He gave us revenge and death upon Haman, so He will take revenge on Sarid," and, "Just as God will wipe out Amalek, so He will wipe out [Sarid]." Ever since the Rabin assassination, this kind of talk doesn't go down easily in Israel.

Nevertheless, the Shasniks continued to behave like the injured party.

When Meretz activists demonstrated outside Yosef's Jerusalem home, police had to prevent counterdemonstrators from attacking them. Some in the pro-Yosef crowd shouted, "Yossi Sarid, Rabin is waiting for you!" The line taken by Shas is that Yosef didn't intend his words to be taken literally, God forbid.

Zvi Ya'acobson, who served time in prison on corruption charges during his earlier days with Shas and is now coordinator of the party's Knesset faction, said defiantly, "It's a shame that [secular Israel] knows more about Goa [a hangout in India popular with Israeli youth] than they do about Yazdim," referring to Yosef's synagogue. "Foreign religions are the bread of life to them, while to them our own Torah is strange and foreign," said the deeply offended Ya'acobson.

Officials in Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein's office said they were leaning towards ordering the police to investigate Yosef for criminal incitement. Rubinstein has been tolerant -- many say too tolerant -- of Yosef's outbursts against Shas's perceived enemies in the past, but this time the rabbi had explicitly called down murder on a particular individual, and this could not be tolerated.

Yet Shas threatened rebellion if the police dared to question their revered rabbi. Minister Eli Yishai, first among Shas's cabinet ministers, said disingenuously that the Shas leadership might not be able to control the party's "street" if Yosef were treated like a common suspect. Shas activists anonymously warned that "the ground would burn" if their holy man came under investigation. It went without saying, they added, that Shas would leave the Barak coalition government if Yosef were treated so disrespectfully.

Barak is in an extremely delicate situation. He tried to finesse the firestorm by delivering the most lukewarm possible reproach to Yosef, saying the rabbi's screed had been "regrettable," and that a "dialogue" based on "love among the people of Israel" was the way to settle differences.

Like every other prime minister since the mid-1980s, when Shas was founded, Barak treats Yosef like royalty. If Barak or any cabinet minister wants to talk with him, Yosef chooses the time, and the meeting is always at the rabbi's home. When Yosef visits the President's Residence, he is escorted to the front door along a red carpet. When Yosef recently visited England, Barak asked a London friend to invite the rabbi over, so Tony Blair received Yosef at 10 Downing Street.

Without Shas's 17 Knesset seats, Barak doesn't have a Knesset majority, which means he doesn't have a government. He would have to bring in the Likud, which vehemently opposes his moves on the peace process. The only way off this seeming collision course is if Rubinstein decides not to order a police investigation of Yosef. But then the highest law enforcement official in the land would be looking the other way at a clear case of incitement to violence by a most influential figure.

This was not Yosef's first outrage, even if it probably was his most dangerous. In the past he said of Aloni, "On the day she dies, we should drink a toast." He cursed the Supreme Court justices as those who "copulate with menstruating women." He called former State Comptroller Miriam Ben-Porat an "enemy of Israel, a hater of religion, a hater of Torah." Yosef has also heaped verbal abuse on former prime ministers David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Shamir and Binyamin Netanyahu and has said that Ashkenazi yeshivas "don't know anything" and turn out "good-for-nothings," unlike the Sephardi yeshivas, where Yosef is called the "giant of his generation" among Jewish religious scholars. With Shas continually getting into trouble with the law over corruption charges, Yosef finds himself tangling with judges, legal officials and politicians who don't help Shas out of its various jams. He reserves special venom for secular leftists like Sarid and Aloni.

Yosef's falling out with Sarid was helped along by the education minister's handling of the effective bankruptcy proceedings for Shas's religious education network, which is funded by the state. The previous head of the Shas school system is currently under police investigation for aggravated fraud, and Sarid has insisted that the Shas schools open their financial books to independent auditors, which the party says it has no intention of doing.

Sarid, for his part, has been getting death threats from political enemies -- mainly extreme right-wingers and ultra-Orthodox -- for roughly two decades. He has spent much of his political career being guarded by Shin Bet secret agents. In the summer of 1995, a few months before the Rabin assassination, a young West Bank settler driving on a highway saw Sarid sitting in the back of a car and tried to run the car off the road.

Sarid has been his typically unflappable, dryly humorous self during this affair, even wishing Yosef a sarcastic "happy Purim." On a more serious note, he said, "My only expectation is that the people whose job it is to take certain steps will take them, so that nobody will have to look back later in regret for having done nothing."

From Sarid's mouth to Elyakim Rubinstein's ears.

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