BY: Reuven Rand.
My editorials for Kol Hamevaser invariably generate controversy from the very lines that strike me as the least controversial. In his letter to the editor, Daniel Danesh castigates me, together with Jack Katzenell of The Independent, for showing “a tremendous lack of respect” to the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, R. Ovadia Yosef, in noting the reaction to his remarks on the Holocaust. I will begin my response by defending Mr. Katzenell. Katzenell did not write an opinion piece; he wrote a news article which consisted of facts, and facts cannot be disrespectful. The Independent,[i] along with the BBC,[ii] New York Times,[iii] Jerusalem Post,[iv] and other national and international news services, felt that R. Yosef’s speech was newsworthy and consequently published his remarks, along with the responses of public figures like Ehud Barak and Tommy Lapid. They were not disrespectful – they were accurately reporting the news – and while most of these organizations are frequently excoriated for one perceived bias or another, I think, in this case, we should applaud them for a job well done.
The cited article, which also quotes R. Yosef accusing Ehud Barak of “bringing snakes beside us” in negotiating with Palestinians, was not the last time R. Yosef appeared in the news: he reappeared the following year calling for the “annihilation of Arabs.”[v] R. Ovadia Yosef “caused outrage by apparently calling on God to ‘strike down’ Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a sermon,” the BBC reported in 2005.[vi] Later that year, he blamed the flooding of New Orleans on George W. Bush’s support of the disengagement from Gush Katif and on a lack of Torah study there: “Blacks will study the Torah?” he asked.[vii] In 2009, he famously proclaimed that anyone who votes for Israeli politician Avigdor Leiberman “supports Satan.”[viii] Finally, this very year, he received international press when he called for Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian population to be killed by the plague[ix] and again when he claimed that “[g]oyim were born only to serve us [the Jews].”[x] I leave it to the reader to decide whether such statements are offensive and whether they are excusable.
Returning to Mr. Danesh’s point, I do not claim to know how the Jewish People chooses its leaders. I do claim to know that most of those leaders recognize a concept called hillul shem Shamayim ba-rabbim (desecration of God’s name in public).[xi] I am not sure how R. Yosef gets around this problem, and Daniel Danesh does not address this in his letter. However, this is an immensely important issue for Orthodox Judaism to deal with, and I thank him for bringing it up.
[i] Jack Katzenell, “Rabbi Says Holocaust Victims were Reincarnations of Sinners,” The Independent (August 6, 2000), available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/rabbi-says-holocaust-victims-were-reincarnations-of-sinners-711547.html.
[iii] John F. Burns, “Israeli Rabbi Sets Off a Political Firestorm Over the Holocaust,” The New York Times (August 7, 2000), available at: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9501E3D7103CF93BA3575BC0A9669C8B63&sec=&spon=&&scp=3&sq=ovadia%20yosef&st=cse.
[iv] “Ovadia Yosef: Shoah Victims – Reincarnated Sinners,” The Jerusalem Post (July 5, 2009), available at: http://www.jpost.com/Israel/Article.aspx?id=147578.
[v] “Rabbi Calls for Annihilation of Arabs,” BBC News (April 10, 2001), available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/1270038.stm.
[vi] “Rabbi Says God Will Punish Sharon,” BBC News (March 9, 2005), available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4333099.stm.
[vii] Zvi Alush, “Rabbi: Hurricane Punishment for Pullout,” YNet News (September 7, 2005), available at: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3138779,00.html.
[viii] “Rabbi Yosef: Lieberman Voters Support Satan,” YNet News (February 7, 2009), available at: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3668135,00.html.
[ix] “Abbas, Palestinians Should Die: Israeli Rabbi,” Reuters (August 29, 2010), available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE67S0GU20100829.
[x] Jonah Mandel, “Yosef: Gentiles Exist Only to Serve Jews,” The Jerusalem Post (October 18, 2010), available at: http://www.jpost.com/JewishWorld/JewishNews/Article.aspx?id=191782.
[xi] Yoma 86a.