Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Strange Necessity of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef

The other day, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the influential Sephardic-religious Shas Party, set-off a firestorm after delivering a sermon in which he said God should unleash a "plague" against the Palestinians and declared that "Abu Mazen (nom de guerre for Abbas) and all these evil people should perish from this world."

Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu moved quickly to disavow the comments. And yet, we are left in a strange situation. Rabbi Yosef's comments are clearly appalling -- I reject anyone who tries to distinguish them from the rabid anti-Israel and anti-Semitic discourse that flows out of the pulpits of all-too-many Palestinian preachers. And yet, Rabbi Yosef has an interesting history in this respect. He has consistently viewed the Palestinian people as Israel's enemy. Yet he also made a highly influential religious ruling that Israel should seek peace with Palestinians, even giving up painful concessions, because to do so might save lives. And indeed, this perplexing paradox was how Shas' spokesperson explained the Rabbi's comment: That the Rabbi sees the Palestinians as enemies, but wants peace with them.

And this is something we seem to see surprisingly often. In the case of "normal politics", we might say someone who called for a plague to fall down against a whole class of people ought be permanently disqualified from playing any role in any political discussion whatsoever, except as a figure of contempt. For of course, these positions are contemptible. And yet, if we want peace, it will have to be the people like Rabbi Yosef who will do it. I am proud of the Israelis who don't see the Palestinians as enemies, and the Palestinians who don't see Israelis as their enemies. But ultimately, it's the folks who would say things like this, who have horrible, hateful, detestable views, and yet still are willing (at least sometimes) to take a step for peace, that are the most valuable.

The easiest thing in the world, in an entrenched ethnic conflict, is to find ways to disqualify prominent players from the realm of civilization. Because ethnic conflict nearly always carries with it a wake of hatred, and hatred is a terrible thing. But such an instinct, I think, ultimately is incompatible with peace and reconciliation -- it is a gambit to justify the status quo, not a tactic thrusting towards the future. This is why I'm willing to look beyond -- not overlook, not apologize for, but look beyond -- some of the positions of potential peace partners, rather than searching for mutually assured discredition. You don't build bridges to folks already on your side of the river. You don't make peace with those who already agree with you. The important thing is a commitment to securing a just peace. Beyond that is beyond that -- it isn't my concern right now.

At least once upon a time, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was this sort of person -- horrible in his hatred of the Palestinians, but perhaps necessary in order to secure peace. It is a thin stand upon which to hang grace, and he may not possess it anymore. But the template is a common one -- amongst Israelis and amongst Palestinians, and it is one we must handle delicately.

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