Was Ovadia Yosef the Israeli Ayatollah?

“Remembering Ovadia Yosef, the Israeli Ayatollah.”

That’s Jeffrey Goldberg’s title for his obituary of the former Chief Rabbi and political leader.

And no, Goldberg doesn’t seem to be using the word Ayatollah as a respectful term for a religious leader. Goldberg compares Yosef to “Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian leader, and Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the extremist Al Jazeera televangelist. It’s unpleasant but necessary to note that Israel, too, has its share of religious fanatics. Yosef was his country’s most eminent.”

Of al-Qaradwi, Goldberg writes

Qaradawi is an extremist’s extremist: He endorses female genital mutilation (he doesn’t refer to it that way, of course); he has called for the punishment of gay people; he has provided theological justification to insurgents who targeted American troops for death in Iraq (though he’s hypocritically silent on the decision of his Qatari patrons to allow the U.S. to locate a Central Command headquarters on their soil); he has defended the idea that the penalty for some Muslims who leave Islam should be death; and also, by the way, he believes that Hitler’s Final Solution was a nifty idea.

Of the Ayatollah Khamenei Goldberg writes “mass murder of innocent people is also prohibited by Islam, but Khamenei’s government engages in this practice through its support for Hezbollah and Bashar Assad in Syria, among others. The regime also kills many people directly, of course, including peacefully protesting Iranians.” And of course Goldberg suspects the Ayatollah Khamenei wishes to destroy Israel with nuclear weapons.

Regarding Ayatollahs in general, Goldberg writes “When ayatollahs start talking about Islamic morality, I run for the exits. Their ideas about what constitute moral acts are not, generally speaking, ours.” He then describes how the Ayatollah Khomeini imported 500,000 small plastic keys that were supposed to open the gates of paradise. He had these keys put around the necks of the Iranian children that he sent to clear the minefields.

I share Goldberg’s opinion regarding much of Ovadia Yosef’s rhetoric. But the worst of Yosef’s rhetoric boiled down to speculations regarding divine justice. Goldberg quotes Yosef with saying things like “It was God’s retribution” and “Tens of thousands have been killed. All of this because they have no God” and “God should strike them with a plague”. I agree with Goldberg that these things should not have been said. But Goldberg has shown elsewhere that he understands that it is “grossly unfair” to a compare a “Jewishly inoperable commandment” with calls for mass murder.

Goldberg’s false equivalency of Yosef’s inoperable rhetoric with Khamenei and al-Qaradwi’s actions is reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin’s denigration of the Tea Party as the American Taliban. The Physicians for Human Rights declare that the Taliban “methodically and violently forces all women and girls into virtual house arrest,” deny them “jobs, schooling, mobility, and health care” and “punished them brutally for infractions.” It takes moral and intellectual depravity to declare the Tea Party their equivalent. It’s reminiscent of the equivalency that Jews building kindergartens in Shilo are like Arabs shooting up ice cream stores in Herzliya.

Rejecting nasty and overheated rhetoric and standing up to religious zealots are core Jewish values. But in our condemnations, we must be more careful not to engage in nasty and overheated rhetoric and depraved equivalencies of our own.

Ovadia Yosef said hurtful things. He is not the Jewish equivalent of Khamenei and al-Qaradawi. He is not the Israeli Ayatollah.

I hope Jeffrey Goldberg lives to be 120. And when he goes, I hope his opponents don’t use his obituary as an opportunity for hyperbolic headlines that exploit his occasional rhetorical overreach in order to make incendiary comparisons.

About the Author
Gil Reich is the author of If You Write My Story, which helps kids deal with life, love, and loss. He is also co-founder of internet marketing and development company Managing Greatness. Previously Gil was VP of Product Management at Answers.com. He has been a popular speaker at internet marketing conferences around the world.
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