Once reviled as the “most hated man in the country”, attorney turned radio host Yoram Sheftel is something of an enigma.
Lambasted in the late 1980s for representing John Demjanjuk, the man accused of being the Treiblinka death camp’s notorious “Ivan the Terrible”, Sheftel became one of Israel’s most successful – and despised – attorneys.
Today, Sheftel is the host of a weekly talk radio show. Expressing staunchly conservative, pro-Zionist political views and known for his often creative slurs ridiculing the Israeli left, Sheftel’s show has often been compared to American talk radio giants like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and Mark Levin.
Sheftel revels in on-air drama, arguing – often passionately – with callers, particularly those affiliated with the left. Referring to the Israeli Labor Party as “the red rag” and Mahmoud Abbas as “Abu Adolf Mazen”, his rhetoric has won him large numbers of both supporters and detractors.
Along with his strongly Zionist beliefs, however, Sheftel is also an ardent atheist. While some see his Jewish identity and atheism as an inherent contradiction, Sheftel sees no inconsistency in his views.
In response to an open letter questioning how his atheism and Jewish identity mesh, Sheftel recently sat down with Arutz Sheva to shed some light on his unique worldview.
Sheftel began by pointing out that both Theodor Herzl and Zeev Jabotinsky – two of modern Zionism’s most important leaders – were complete atheists, yet were both motivated by an overriding love of the Jewish people.
Laying out the basis of his own Zionist beliefs, Sheftel said Jewish nationhood had the same basic features as other countries around the world, yet was also distinguished by the role of religion in creating ethnic identity.
“We are, first of all, a people in the same sense as all other nations. We have a language, and national tradition, and land over which we are sovereign.”
“A French person can be Protestant or Catholic or even Jewish or Muslim. In this sense Judaism is distinct from other nations; the Jew is distinguished by his religion. There is no such thing as a Muslim Jew or a Christian Jew.”
Sheftel was quick to add that “Someone who is Jewish according to Jewish traditional law is completely Jewish even if he is an atheist, since even Jewish sinners remain Jews.”
“I’m not embarrassed by my atheism, but I do recognize the fact… that the more a person keeps tradition and lives according to the Torah and its commandments, he is also [likely] to be more Zionist. I understand that completely. There is nothing more Zionist than the religion of Israel.”
“But on the other hand there is also a huge exception to this in the case of haredi Judaism, which refuses to bless the Jewish people and the State of Israel in synagogue,” said Sheftel, “which is the reason why I will never set foot in a haredi synagogue.”
Regarding the basis of his own atheism, Sheftel cited the Holocaust.
“I don’t want to get into a theological debate, so as not to offend people, but if the question is anyway being asked, so I’ll say what I think,” said Sheftel, saying it was “God’s total absence during the Holocaust” that led to his disbelief.
“I’ve never heard, nor has anyone ever come with a valid explanation that makes sense on this subject, and this is one of the things that shows that, in effect, we appear to be alone in this world. What’s more certain – and this is true even for the believer… that we must always rely only on our strength and determination because the State of Israel – and this is a historical fact – was established not by the righteous Messiah, the son of David, but by a community of total heretics”.
“One more thing I’d like to say; despite the fact that I am a total atheist, I [nevertheless] regularly go to synagogue and put on tefillin once or twice a week, learn Torah, and eat kosher, because I’d say that even a total atheist can’t hide from the fact that a certain lifestyle rooted in religion sanctified the Jewish people for 3,000 years, and someone who sees himself as part of the Jewish people can’t use his atheism as an excuse to cut himself off from all of this”.