Small World

Jewish World Review August 15 , 2000 / 14 Menachem-Av, 5760

The rabbi could learn from Lieberman

By Richard Z. Chesnoff -- IT'S NOT OFTEN I agree with Yasser Arafat's chief spokesman. But when the Palestinian information minister condemned recent remarks by Israeli Rabbi Ovadia Yosef as "racist and idiotic," I had to concur --- sadly and angrily.

Yosef is the spiritual boss of Shas, the extremist Israeli religious party. Sermonizing to his faithful in Jerusalem last Sabbath, the 79-year-old Yosef characterized Palestinians as "snakes" and condemned Prime Minister Ehud Barak as "brainless" for trying to make peace with them.

Yosef went on to describe the 6 million Jews slaughtered by the Nazis as "reincarnations of the souls of sinners who transgressed and did all sorts of things which should not be done." These Holocaust victims - men, women and children - had been "incarnated in order to atone," he declared. They had been murdered, he concluded in a shocking statement, "to make amends."

We could write off the rabbi's outrageous remarks as the mumbo jumbo of an extremist religious loony, or just the sad ramblings of a senile old man. But Yosef, whom one irreverent Israeli journalist once dubbed "Captain Marvel" because of his penchant for theatrically embroidered robes, is the most politically powerful religious figure in Israel. And it is Yosef's Shas Party that Barak is trying to seduce back into his shaky coalition government.

The rabbi's remarks unleashed a predictable storm of protest, and Yosef began back pedaling faster than a biker going down the Mount of Olives. But in a nation where religious passions can ignite the sort of fires of hate that led to the murder of Yitzhak Rabin and provoke terrorism on both sides, this sort of talk from a "holy man" is outrageous and unforgivable.

Ominously enough, Yosef's 20-year-old grandson was arrested earlier this year on charges of stockpiling weapons for an anti-Arab organization.

Of course, Yosef is not the only religious kook in our midst. The Muslim mufti of Jerusalem told us the Holocaust "never took place," and the Gaza Strip leader of Hamas considers Jews "children of dogs and monkeys." In India, Hindu and Moslem "holy men" are exhorting the faithful to murder. And on any given day, leaders of the extreme Christian right in America are preaching racial and religious hatred.

Does that mean that all religious leaders have to be extremist? The answer is clearly NO! We have our own examples of great and tolerant religious leaders - the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Heschel, just to name two. Clearly, individuals can lead deeply religious lives without trashing others. Just this week we've seen the Democrats nominate one such man as a vice presidential candidate: Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

Maybe, like me, you don't agree with all his policies all the time. But one thing is clear, Lieberman, a fervently Orthodox Jew, has found a way to successfully coordinate the age-old traditions of his people with modern life and to invoke Judaism's basic tenets of justice and compassion for the benefit of all people.

Maybe when Yosef gets out from under the flood of protests that have come his way, he could take a few lessons in Torah ethics from Lieberman. Two other things should happen: Shas should send Captain Marvel out to pasture, and Barak should announce that until it does, he won't include the party in his government.

JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report and a columnist at the NY Daily News. His latest book is Pack of Thieves: How Hitler & Europe Plundered the Jews and Committed the Greatest Theft in History.


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