Open Zion

08.30.12

“Destroy them, God, obliterate them from the face of the earth.”

Pop quiz: What religio-political leader said the following, about which nation?

Do good, God, wipe them out, kill them…. Destroy them God, obliterate them from the face of the earth.

If you said Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, head of Israel’s Shas Party and one of the country’s ultra-Orthodox kingmakers, and further guessed that he was talking about Iran—please take a seat at the head of the class.

Here’s more of what the Jerusalem Post reported on Sunday:

This is the second time in a row in which Yosef has spoken about the threat of Iran’s nuclear program during his post-Shabbat Torah lesson.

It follows a briefing he was given by National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror on the Iranian issue 10 days ago, which was seen as part of an effort from the Prime Minister’s Office to obtain the rabbi’s support for the government’s position on the matter.

…Shas political leader and Interior Minister Eli Yishai has been thought until now to be opposed to a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, a stance most likely dictated by Yosef, who determines all major policy positions for the party.

…Last Saturday night, in reference to a Persian enemy of the Jewish people recorded in the Book of Esther, Yosef said that “a second Haman, also from Persia, intends to do evil to us.”

“We are in danger, all of us are in danger. We have no one to rely on apart from our Father in heaven,” said Yosef.

Yosef also mentioned Hezbollah (“when we say that our enemies, foes and anyone who desires to do evil to us should be cut off, we should have in mind Hezbollah and Iran”), but even having said that, I’m finding it hard to see a real difference between these statements, and statements so like them that emanate from Iran.

In both cases, men who consider themselves, and are considered by legions of followers, to be exemplars of their faith communities, leaders with direct insight into the heights and depths of their religions’ teachings and traditions, are calling on the Almighty to do what they genuinely believe the Almighty already wants to do: Destroy the other guy.

When such things are said in Persian, Jews around the world rightly react with some alarm.

We understand that Iranian leaders who speak in terms of Divine retribution work from a playbook that has little to do with modern norms and expectations, and that they have a worrying degree of influence in their country’s decision-making. If we’ve done some reading (look up the work of Barbara Slavin and Hooman Majd and you’ll be well on your way), we understand that they don’t represent the opinions of all Iranians or even everyone in the upper reaches of Iranian politics—but we’re right to pay attention and urge reasonable steps to forestall any effort to act on the language of destruction.

But what about when it’s said in Hebrew?

To the extent that there’s a difference, it’s a question not of intent, but of structure and scope: Ovadia Yosef really means it—he is, really, calling on Jews around the world to ask God to “obliterate [Iran] from the earth,” a thing that he sincerely believes God to be both capable and desirous of—but much as he may be a kingmaker in Israeli politics, he is not, in fact, the Prime Minister. While Israeli clerics enjoy an entirely undemocratic amount of power in Israel’s democracy, they don’t actually run the place.

And of course, for every Rabbi Yosef (and he’s most certainly not the only Israeli rabbi to feel this way), there are a metaphorical dozen Iranian clerics saying whatever the Shi’ite version is of “do good, God, wipe them out.”

Structure and scope matter—no question.

But so do the words, the intent, the role of the man who says them, and the fact that his government actively seeks his approval.

If I were an Iranian moderate (and yes, Virginia, there really are Iranian moderates), I’m pretty sure that Yosef’s words would make me nervous.