Elazar Stern
Elazar Stern Israel news photo: Flash 90

A petition was filed today (Friday) by dozens of Rabbis across Israel calling for the resignation of HaTnua MK Elazar Stern after the latter's public smear campaign against revered Kiryat Arba Rabbi Dov Lior.

Last week (Wednesday), HaTnua MK Elazar Stern ascended the Knesset podium and demanded the dismissal of Rabbi Dov Lior, Chief Rabbi of the Hebron suburb of Kiryat Arba, from the Rabbinate, over allegations that he stated in a sermon that Israel's "Ethiopians are not Jews." Stern also claims to have received reports from attendants stating that the Rabbi told a congregant "woe to you if your son marries an Ethiopian woman - she is not Jewish", and has responded with a call for the Rabbi's public ouster, claiming that Rabbi Lior "is not one of us." 

Stern's accusations have caused an uproar over the past week, eliciting widespread criticism from the public and from fellow Knesset MKs alike. The issue escalated when a 17 year-old reportedly spat on the MK last Friday as he exited a synagogue in the North. The youth has since apologized to members of his community - but not to MK Stern himself. 

Condemnations of Stern's smear campaign have been mounting. Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) MK Orit Struk has demanded that Stern give a public apology. "[Stern] needs to beg public forgiveness from the Rabbi [Dov Lior] for launching a full-blown attack against him [. . .] in a way which purposely distorts the situation and the present reality," Struk stated.

Struk, who has "had the privilege of being the Rabbi's neighbor in Kiryat Arba for the past 31 years," upholds recent reports to Arutz 7 that Stern's claims are patently false. "We have a huge community of Ethiopian immigrants. No one can say that an Ethiopian community is more well-integrated into society than in Kiryat Arba."

The petition filed unequivocally rejects the accusations. "R' Lior never said the racist statements that MK Stern has attributed to him," the petition maintains, calling for the MK to stand trial for libel. "The accusations are deep-rooted and outright lies. There is no greater libel such as this [. . .] Stern must apologize for his remarks."

The petition adds that despite the fact that the accusations have parliamentary immunity, the law "does not allow them [MKs] to fully discredit any individual citizen of the State of Israel - especially when he is such a well-respected Rabbi, teacher, and religious leader for the masses."

The Rabbis have also signed a statement condemning last week's spitting attack, stating that "this is not the Torah way." Among the Rabbis filing the claim include well-known religious leaders Rabbi Chaim Levanon, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, Rabbi Eliezer Waldman, Rabbi Yehoshua Shapira, Rabbi Gideon Perl, and other public figures.

Stern also received an official warning letter from attorney Yitzhak Bam earlier this week on Lior's behalf, stating that Stern is required to issue a public apology. "Had you [Stern] bothered to check things out thoroughly, you would have discovered that Rabbi Lior's stance on the issue is much more complicated, and is in accordance with the public stance of the Rabbinate of the State of Israel," the letter states.

Bam clarifies that the controversial sermon actually confirmed the Rabbinate's stance that while Beta Israel Ethiopians underwent circumcision in their native communities in accordance with Jewish law, they still are required to undergo an official - fast-track - conversion, due to uncertainty regarding the exact heritage of the community over hundreds of years of isolation from contact with the larger Jewish world. On the other hand, Falashmura Ethiopians converted to Christianity over a hundred years ago and there is not quesiton that they must convert. The Rabbinate made this a painless process once they studied Judaism and converted whole families.

"Rabbi Lior asked, in connection with this week's Torah portion, whether or not Ethiopians' circumcision was enough according to Torah law," the letter states. "He answered that of course it was - but that they have to undergo the conversion process anyway, without a blessing [i.e. the blessings made over the commandment of circumcision - ed] - and to accept the commandments, as an added stricture according to Rabbinate law," Bam writes.

The attorney added that Stern's amendment of the Rabbi's statements to "Ethiopians are not Jews" constitutes a legal case of libel, a violation of the Knesset's Code of Ethics, and propagates baseless hatred on allegedly moral grounds.

Despite the fact that Stern's comments remain protected under parliamentary immunity, Bam claims that they still constitute an act of incitement within the framework of the inner workings of Knesset politics and procedures. "More importantly, from a public aspect, it is a requirement to check the veracity of the claims before making the statements, and to apologize accordingly if the claims are revealed to be untrue, as a matter of common decency" the letter continues.

As of Friday afternoon, the public outrage seems to have escalated: posters have appeared in several cities with an appeal from several Orthodox and hareidi Rabbis calling for Stern to make a public apology, as well as labeling him as a heretic, or 'apikorus', for launching a smear campaign against the respected Rabbi. 

The Rabbinate's approach to waves of Ethiopian immigration have drawn criticism and controversy over the past few decades from anti-religious figures, with some claiming that they stem from inherent suspicion of Jewish populations from outside of Israel's main two communities, the Europe-based Ashkenazis, and the Spain-and Middle-Eastern based Sephardi population. Various academic scholars questioned the Ethiopian claim to Judaism as well. However, the Chief Rabbinate under the late Rabbi Avraham Shapira and before that under Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, recognized the Beta Yisrael Ethiopians as being Jewish, with the minor conversion requirement due to their not being aware of halakhic requirements for marriage and divorce.

Attempts by Arutz Sheva to reach Stern's representatives have been denied. Stern has previously stated that he is unwilling to speak to members of this publication.