Ovadia Yosef and the silence – so far – of American Jewish leaders

Update: in this blog, I asked what Jewish leader would be the first to condemn Rabbi Ovadia Yosef”s death wish for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian people.  Answer: Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).  This just in from Foxman:

We are outraged by the offensive and incendiary comments made by Rav Ovadia Yosef. Particularly on the eve of renewed peace talks, and on the eve of the Jewish New Year, one would have hoped that Rav Yosef could have inspired his students and followers with a message of hope, humility, repentance and forgiveness.

Update 2: second out of the box was J Street’s Hadar Susskind, who said that "Just as we have consistently called for an need to end incitement on the Palestinian side, so too we call for Israeli leaders and public figures to be held to those same rightly high standards."

These comments do not exist in a vacuum – such incendiary expressions contribute to a potentially dangerous environment of intolerance and hatred.


So here’s a question for you. As the New York Islamic center controversy continues to fester, we keep hearing demands from American Jewish leaders that Muslim leaders condemn in no uncertain terms the extremists in their own community, and complaints that the imam who wants to build the center hasn’t done enough of that.

So which Jewish leader here is going to be the first to speak out about Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas party, who basically just called for the Palestinians to be wiped out by a plague or something?

According to Israel Radio – not exactly a left-wing, anti-Israel news source – Yosef said over the weekend that "God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians," referring, apparently, to Palestinian leaders and ordinary Palestinians.

(Over the weekend, the State Department reacted with predictable anger to Yosef’s comments -predictable, given that he made them just days before the start of new Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. “We regret and condemn the inflammatory statements by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef,” said Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley.” We note the Israeli statement that the Rabbi’s comments do not reflect the views of the Prime Minister. These remarks are not only deeply offensive, but incitement such as this hurts the cause of peace.”)

The reaction was quick in Jerusalem; “These words do not reflect the approach of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, nor the position of the government of Israel,” according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s office.

So where are the pro-Israel leaders here on the latest Shas controversy? Where’s the fast and unequivocal response we expect from others to rhetorical incitement?

Actually, I understand this reluctance.

Nobody likes to slam a religious leader, right? Yosef represents a big and important constituency in Israel, and not just because of his extremism; no doubt he offers them something important beyond his irresponsible statements on Arab-Israeli matters. Some Jewish leaders also worry about calling attention to the likes of the Shas leader, and they fret about Jewish unity.

So I’m guessing most want very badly to stay quiet – even if they are personally appalled by Yosef’s sentiments.

No, it’s not easy to condemn the extremists in our midst, especially in the context of a long conflict that has worn nerves raw and especially when the extremists are religious leaders.

But maybe we need a little more understanding about why others have a hard time doing the same with regard to their own extremist factions.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.