Schach Creates Controversy Again, Calling Sephardic Leadership Lame

Rabbi Eliezer Schach, spiritual mentor of the strictly Orthodox Degel HaTorah party, has touched off another storm of controversy in Israel’s political community, this time with a statement that appears to belittle Sephardim.

Charges of racism and elitism were leveled at the 96-year-old sage after he was quoted as saying that the “Sephardi religious leadership is not mature enough to lead the state or lead religion.”

In the superheated public atmosphere just 10 days before the election, Schach’s statement has become a national point of reference, with representatives of almost every party mentioning it in their public remarks.

The Mitnagged rabbi, who is dean of the large Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, is no stranger to controversy here. He has locked horns often with the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson of Brooklyn. And his opinion was considered a fulcrum in 1990 against Labor leader Shimon Peres’ efforts to form a Labor-led coalition government.

At that time, Schach delivered a highly publicized speech to some 10,000 delegates of Degel HaTorah, in which he refused to talk politics but nevertheless was credited with swaying votes to Likud by his stinging polemic against secular Jews and the kibbutz movement in particular, a domain of Labor.

That summer, Schach again made headlines by claiming that some 20 percent of the most recent immigrants were not Jews. And he again lambasted the kibbutzim.

Last month, he gave his blessing to plans for his party to reunite with its Hasidic rival, Agudat Yisrael, from which he had turned two years ago when Agudah aligned with Lubavitch.

In the latest turn of events, Schach’s remarks, made June 10 at a meeting of rabbis, were being interpreted by his own aides as an attack on the Sephardic Shas party and, in particular, its leader, Interior Minister Arye Deri, one of the youngest Israelis ever to hold Cabinet rank.

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Schach’s aides said the aging rabbi had gone on to lament that “certain young persons are trying to take over the yeshiva world.”

But they said his ostensibly anti-Sephardic remarks had been taken out of context and published with an aim to discredit him.

Among Shas members there was no official reaction. The party’s mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, was given a demonstratively warm welcome when he arrived Saturday night for his weekly talk at the Bukharan Quarter synagogue in Jerusalem. There he cited the Mishnaic aphorism, “Silence suits the wise.”

Privately, Shas activists claimed the Schach statement would boomerang favorably for their party. “It’s worth two or three more seats to us,” they told reporters.

Schach had plainly intended his remarks to persuade strictly Orthodox Sephardim to vote for the United Torah Front, the joint list comprising Agudat Yisrael, Schach’s own Degel HaTorah, and the Sephardic minister of absorption, Yitzhak Peretz.

Among Schach’s many Sephardic disciples, some insisted there had been no general aspersion against their community, while others freely admitted that they found themselves “torn now by conflicting loyalties.”

The general media gave saturation coverage to the sage’s remarks right through the weekend. The Israel daily Ma’ariv on Sunday devoted seven pages to the statement and its aftermath. The paper’s main news headline claimed Schach had sought a firm commitment from Shas that it would not align with Labor after the election and, failing to obtain that, had launched his attack on the Sephardic party.

Among the political parties, reactions varied.

Charlie Biton of the far-left Hatikvah party filed a criminal complaint with the police against Schach on grounds of incitement to racism.

Labor urged the voters to throw out “Schach and his allies, the Likud.”

And Yossi Sarid of the left-wing Meretz bloc described Schach as “one of the great dividers of the nation.”

Likud reaction was largely muted, which is understandable given the close political alliance between Likud and Schach over recent years.

Schach’s aides cited this alliance as evidence that the sage has nothing against most Sephardic politicians. His contact man in Likud is Commerce Minister Moshe Nissim, a son of late Sephardic Chief-Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim.

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