Holocaust Remarks Reveal Depth of Israel's Divisions

  • Share
  • Read Later
Nobody but a rabbi would have dared describe the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust as the reincarnated souls of Jewish sinners. Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Ovadia Yosef did just that last weekend, bringing down a rain of criticism. But although his controversial remarks speak to the theological dilemma the Holocaust poses for ultra-Orthodox Jews, they are also an eloquent comment on the depth of tribal enmity among the citizens of the Jewish state. Iraqi-born Rabbi Yosef is also the spiritual leader of Israel's third largest party, Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party representing Sephardic Jews, who immigrated to Israel from Arab countries and suffered racist treatment at the hands of the Ashkenazi (of European origin) elite.

The Labor party, which governed Israel for the first three decades of its independence, has borne the brunt of the resultant hostility, and despite apologizing for its past ill-treatment of the Sephardim, it continues to suffer their ire. Shas recently bolted Prime Minister Ehud Barak's coalition, and last week helped defeat his nominee for president — the ur-Ashkenazi Shimon Peres — instead electing an Iranian-born legislator from the opposition. But the contempt for European Jewry implied by Rabbi Yosef's depiction of Holocaust victims signals a new low, and the fact that it came as part of a sermon castigating Barak's peacemaking efforts and characterizing all Arabs as "cursed evildoers" will only fuel the controversy.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews of both Sephardic and Ashkenazi origin have theological difficulties explaining the Holocaust, because it appears to challenge the notion that the Jews are God's chosen people. For the most part, they prefer not to talk about it, and on Israel's annual Shoah day — when the nation is called to observe two minutes of remembrance for those who died — the ultra-Orthodox go about their business even as the majority stop what they're doing and stand in silence. But it remains a cause of considerable discomfort for ultra-Orthodox theologians, not least because so many of those who died were ultra-Orthodox rabbis and true believers themselves.

Rabbi Yosef appeared to recant Monday, telling Israeli TV that his comments had been intended as a theological explanation of the Holocaust, but that he believed that all 6 million killed "were holy and pure and complete saints." But the impact of his original remarks won't be that easily reversed. The Holocaust remains the single defining event in Israel's conception of its nationhood, with the Yad Vashem museum the obligatory starting point for any visiting head of state. Against that backdrop, the rabbi's remarks are a telling sign of the depth of division Israel will confront even if it achieves peace with all of its neighbors.