Sometimes it seems the nastiness of Israeli politics is surpassed only by the nastiness of Israeli religious politics. And so it is that one of the bright spots in the Knesset, Rabbi Chaim Amsalem, who has courageously advocated for a solution to the conversion crisis based on halachic sources, has been, in effect, removed from the Shas party and, worse still, compared to Amalek, the biblical figure who embodies pure evil.
The newspaper of Shas, a religious Sephardic party, this week described Rabbi Amsalem as a “heretic” and akin to Amalek, whose memory, according to Jewish law, must be eradicated.
If a religious zealot took those words to heart, it could result in violence performed in the name of the faithful, a post-Rabin scenario too painful to consider but too real to dismiss.
What prompted the harsh condemnation was a series of statements from the maverick rabbi, most notably in arguing for a more lenient approach to conversions for Russian Israelis, on the basis of their having Jewish ancestors, and most recently for suggesting that too many yeshiva students are taking advantage of their status to avoid employment and army service. Rabbi Amsalem has also called on religious schools to provide a stronger secular core curriculum, and asserted that Sephardic Jews should not be under the power of Ashkenazi (Lithuanian) haredi rabbis when it comes to religion and education.
In defiance of the Shas statement this week that he give up his Knesset seat as a party member, the rabbi said he will not step down, and is considering starting his own party, one that would appeal to traditional Sephardim who value tolerance as well as religious laws. Rabbi Amsalem represents those who feel Shas political leaders have taken on the insularity and rigidity of some “black hat” Ashkenazi figures.
His critique calls into question the moral authority of Shas politicians like party leader Eli Yishai, who asserted that if Rabbi Amsalem tries to start his own party without the approval of the rabbinical council of leaders, “not even his wife would vote for him.”
The American Jewish Committee issued a statement this week noting that it was “appalled at the verbal and written abuse” aimed at Rabbi Amsalem and praising his “innovative, courageous and farsighted position on matters that affect the entire Jewish people.”
The statement called on “Jewish leaders from across the religious and political spectrum” to “denounce clearly this incitement to hatred.”
We will be watching to see who takes up the call, particularly in Israel, where name-calling too often replaces responsible policy-making.
Rabbi Amsalem has set forth his views in a thoughtful and dignified manner, based on the goal of unifying his country. Let those who disagree with his positions assert theirs rather than stoop to ad hominem attacks. And let the people decide.