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Israeli Rabbi’s Fiery Remarks Spark Criminal Investigation

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The political crisis buffeting the government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Monday began with a sermon by a blue-turbaned rabbi.

Ten days ago, before a cheering congregation, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of a powerful ultra-Orthodox movement, compared Israel’s leftist, secular education minister to one of the Bible’s most hated enemies of the Jewish people.

Yossi Sarid, the education minister, should be wiped from the face of the Earth, Yosef told his followers in a sermon. Urged to retract the statement, Yosef last weekend said he did not mean to incite violence--and then called Sarid a Torah-hating, anti-Jewish racist.

As a result, the state prosecutor’s office Monday opened a criminal investigation into the rabbi, an unprecedented and explosive action that threatens the stability of the Barak government and inflames a debate within Israel that goes to the essence of its society.

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Yosef heads the Shas political party, a faction of Sephardic, ultra-Orthodox Jews that forms the second-largest bloc in Barak’s coalition government and, as such, holds the balance of power in any crucial vote. Enraged Shas leaders demanded that the inquiry be dropped and considered whether to quit the government.

Losing Shas would give Barak a minority government and weaken his hand just as he hits a particularly rough spot in negotiations to broker long-awaited peace deals with Syria and the Palestinians. Shas has generally backed Barak’s peace policies, and Barak in the past has been willing to compromise to keep the party on board.

Yet the crisis goes beyond immediate politics and to the broader struggles that are defining the state of Israel. What limits can a democracy impose on the power of the religious in a Jewish state? Is a rabbi ever above the law?

Yosef, in his trademark ceremonial blue turban and gold-trimmed robes, and the owlish education minister Sarid are longtime nemeses who embody the fundamental clash between the religious and secular segments of Israeli society.

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In addition, Yosef and other members of Shas are Sephardic Jews of Middle Eastern descent, while Sarid and most of his leftist Meretz Party adherents are Ashkenazi Jews of European origin. The two communities have long been at odds over historic discrimination against the Sephardim.

Yosef’s followers immediately branded the decision to investigate him as a racist targeting of the Sephardic religious community.

“They are making us feel like second-, third-, fourth-class citizens,” Health Minister Shlomo Benizri, of Shas, said.

Similar complaints were raised last year when Aryeh Deri, Shas’ former secretary-general, was sentenced to prison after he was convicted on fraud charges. He awaits an appeal.

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Hundreds of black-hatted Shas yeshiva students and party members rallied outside Yosef’s home Monday, chanting support and sounding the shofar, or ram’s horn. Some burned car tires and stoned reporters.

Yosef, 79, eventually appeared at his window and spoke to the crowd, insisting that it refrain from violence.

Other Israelis welcomed the launching of the criminal probe ordered by Atty. Gen. Elyakim Rubinstein.

“It’s a victory for democracy,” Nomi Chazan, a legislator from Sarid’s Meretz Party, told Israeli radio. “It’s a landmark decision because it says nobody is above the law.”

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Yosef will be investigated under Israel’s terrorism laws on suspicion of encouraging acts of violence that could lead to injury or killing, insulting a public official and defamation, Rubinstein said.

Israelis are particularly sensitive to perceived incitement by religious leaders after an observant Jew assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, claiming he had received a blessing to act from his rabbis.

In his March 18 sermon, which was also broadcast on Shas’ pirate radio network, Yosef compared Sarid to the biblical character Haman, the chief minister of the Persian Empire who ordered the Jews of his kingdom to be massacred. The story is told in the book of Esther and is celebrated--because Haman’s plot is foiled--during the holiday of Purim, which took place last week.

Yosef told his audience that Sarid, like Haman, should be “extirpated from the Earth.”

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On Saturday, after saying he had meant no harm, Yosef instead compared Sarid to the Egyptian pharaoh who enslaved the Jews.

Yosef’s defenders, such as Shas Secretary-General Zvi Yaakobson, said the rabbi is speaking in biblical metaphors that are completely foreign to Israel’s secular and religiously bereft majority, but that should not be taken literally.

However, Rubinstein said Yosef declined several chances to retract the statements or to apologize to Sarid.

“Yosef sees himself as the elite vanguard of the Torah, and the state as the pagan enemy,” said Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at the Israel Democracy Institute. “Two principles are clashing: the rule of law and that no person is above the law; and the rule of a religious charismatic leadership speaking in the name of God.”

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Sarid and Shas have been locked in battle ever since Barak’s government was formed nearly nine months ago. Shas receives state money for its parallel system of religious schools, but Sarid, as education minister, has attempted to impose controls on Shas’ spending and curriculum.

It is generally believed here that Shas will not want to leave the coalition, because the party needs the money. Shas holds 17 seats in Barak’s 68-seat majority in the 120-member parliament. Meretz has 10.

Still, the indignity must be stinging. A rabbi of Yosef’s stature has never before faced this kind of inquiry, which is often the last step before a formal indictment. However, it is not likely that he will ever go to trial. And to avoid a confrontational spectacle, the rabbi probably will be allowed to answer his police interrogation in writing.

On Monday, Barak appealed for public calm and for restraint from all politicians, especially, he said, since Israel can ill afford domestic chaos when it is engaged in delicate Middle Eastern diplomacy.

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“The slippery slope of hostility and tension in society starts with the kind of things we are encountering today,” Barak said.


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