“Criticizing Israel and anti-Semitism often come together” - Chief Rabbi

Religious dialogue is the solution to disagreements where political diplomacy fails, believes Yona Metzger, the youngest Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in Israeli history. He spoke to RT.

RT: Mr Yona Metzger, thank you very much for agreeing to give us this interview. You were on a list of the world’s most influential religious leaders published by the CBS last year. How large, in your opinion, is your influence?

Yona Metzger: I think the world has changed now. In the first place it has changed in a way that it happens no longer that one country could make an open statement that it wishes to invade and take possession of another country based on some territorial claims.

And yet – why do we still develop nuclear weapons, why is terrorism still alive, why do we come up with new kinds of arms, why is violence still on the global agenda?

Regrettably, there are certain radical movements within certain religions which claim to be “the only true” religions, that claim to be authorized to speak on behalf of their god, who is the only god, and that murder can be used in the name of this god and for the sake of disseminating their religion and influence around the world.

I see my role as that of one of the Jewish religious leaders in representing a community, a religion, a culture, a mentality which perceives God as much more than a power that will bring peace to our people and we shall say “Amen”. We are the people who great each other not simply by saying Hi or Hallo but by wishing peace – “Shalom.”

RT: Mr Metzger, you proposed to have an international organization established that would be similar to the UN and which would bring together different religious leaders in order to work out solutions for conflicts of religious origin. Do you think that, say, negotiations with the Iranian Ayatollah, would be possible today?

YM: I do think such talks are quite possible. And such talks could be much easier, and more constructive than diplomatic talks. Unfortunately, we have seen it many times that in diplomatic talks we, as the Israelis, were simply not listened to, whereas when we talk as religious Jews we get much more attention, because after all, all of our religions are Abrahamic. We all believe in one god, and this gives a basis for mutual understanding.

I would like to note that we run this project together with Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill. This project is more than just a wish; it consists of practical steps which are being implemented right now. Of particular importance to us is that this religious forum should bring together representatives of those countries and peoples that do not maintain diplomatic relations. Religious dialogue can work where diplomacy fails.

RT: Mr Metzger, you just mentioned something that is very interesting to me. You just said that Israelis have a hard time getting heard, whereas Jews do get heard. To what extent is Israel capable of implementing its policies without getting help from the world political lobby and in particular the US one? To me as an outsider it seems somewhat out of proportion that such a small country as Israel should have such an enormous influence upon global processes.

YM: The holier the place, the more attention it draws. The three Abrahamic religions, namely Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, believe that their Holy Land lies in our country.

RT: A report has been circulated by the media that Muslim civilians are no longer allowed to use Jerusalem’s mosques – is that true?

YM: You see, I don’t know what has been circulated by the media, but the reality is that Muslim civilians who come to the Temple Mount to pray – they come to their mosques and are absolutely free to pray there. Of course you cannot take any weapons with you to the Temple Mount. You cannot throw stones during the prayer. But if people come to pray to their god, they enjoy complete freedom to do it.

Israel is a country that fully supports freedom of conscience and worship. Here confessors of all religions have equal rights to pray, follow their religion, and obtain education. We even have an institution, a religious council, where we have rabbis, priests, and Muslim religious leaders sitting all together in one room and working on finding solutions to our common problems and achieving understanding.

RT: Mr Metzger, do you consider criticism of Israel to be anti-Semitism?

YM: Criticizing Israel and anti-Semitism are different things, but sadly they often come together. A classic example would be the leader of Iran, who on the one hand is an acknowledged Israel critic, and on the other denies the Holocaust. You must understand that denying the Holocaust is typical anti-Semitism, nothing else but anti-Semitism.

The Iranian President claims to be criticizing Israel, but in fact he defies obvious historical facts and calls openly to wipe out the whole state of Israel, all the 6 million Jews who live there today. So the question is – where does the criticism end and the anti-Semitism start? Or the other way round.

RT: Israel is a secular state, yet it often adopts political decisions which have obvious religious motivations. To what extent are religion and politics interconnected in Israel?

YM: The state of Israel was established as a secular state. Yet, since our nationality is defined by our religion we have certain religious elements built into the state structure. For example, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is in charge of three things: Jewish weddings, divorce proceedings, and conversions of non-Jews to Judaism. These are religious issues, yet at the same time they are part of the state administrative system. Such is the peculiarity of our country.

It is important to understand that Judaism is the kind of religion which is different – let us not say “strange” – from others. What makes us different is that our religion is at the same time our nationality. And this cannot be helped. We are Jews, and our religion tells us to marry Jews. Israeli law prescribes only religious marriages, which means that the wedding ceremony is officiated by a Rabbi given that both the man and woman are Jewish.

RT: What about love?

YM: Why should this be a problem? Why cannot Jews love each other?

RT: I mean what if a Christian man is in love with a Jewish woman? Or a non-Jewish woman loves a Jew and is willing to convert to Judaism?

YM: Welcome…. No problem: the Jewish law says that if you convert to Judaism you become a Jew. Your origin is not important. Of course, we also have citizens who are defiantly anti-religious. Well, this is their right and freedom. If they do not wish to have a wedding with a Rabbi, they go to Cyprus which is very close, get married there, and their marriage is deemed valid here, too. By the way, this is how many mixed marriages are concluded. But to be honest, all in all, we talk here about less than 1 percent of the population.

RT: What is your personal attitude to the immigrants from the former USSR? They were forced to keep their religious views and customs in secret, and moreover they did not have a possibility to observe their religious traditions.

YM: I have a great admiration and love for the absolute majority of the immigrants from the former USSR, because they are intelligent, cultured, and hard-working people who brought with them a high level of motivation into our society, and this enabled us to make a tremendous progress.

RT: And now the unavoidable question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Russian Foreign Ministry commented on the decision made by the Israeli government to build new houses in East Jerusalem as unacceptable, as this decision will handicap the chances to resume talks. Do you think this is the right decision to make?

YM: A political decision was made many years ago that no new settlements should be built on the territories liberated by the Israeli army in 1967. We have not built any new housing for a very long time. But there are settlements which are 30 to 40 years old, and now there is already a second generation of people living there – those people who have been born there had their own children, too. And these people are now having their children. Our construction campaign allows to build more rooms for these families in their houses and thus to upgrade their standard of living. So what is happening is a natural process of social development taking place in the existing settlements.

RT: Mr Metzger, recently you’ve made a political proposal to transfer Gazans to the Sinai Peninsular and construct a new Palestinian state in the desert. Do you think it’s realistic? Have you discussed it with the Israeli authorities? And to how much should the spiritual leader participate in political processes?

YM: I would never dare and I don’t have any interest in making political proposals. My initiative is humanitarian. You know, the modern world is technological. A desert is not world’s end. Tomorrow you can create such an oasis in the desert that the whole world would envy you.
I look at the territory of the Sinai Peninsula between Gaza and Egypt and see that it’s vacant, nobody lives there. While nearby, millions of people are crowded in a tiny lot of the Gaza Strip. Thеy have nothing to eat, they cannot develop this territory, because it has nothing for developing. Instead of sitting in the trap of Gaza, these people would be able to develop themselves, contact the world, give birth and raise children in good economic, cultural and environmental conditions.

And why aren’t they doing it at present? For one simple reason, there are politicians for whom famine and poverty of this nation is the only justification of their own existence and the only opportunity to wield power over these poor and hungry people.

RT: Mr Metzger, talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one says this is our land, the other says this land is ours… Considering all present realities, being God’s man, if you spoke with God, what solution would you like him to give to you, what miracle do you expect?

YM: I’m praying and plead the Lord to make these politicians wise, because for politicians a conflict is an opportunity to survive and accumulate political and, by the way, not only political capital. Our people understand perfectly well that we can and should live in peace and security. If we still live in conflict, if blood is shed, it happens only because politicians profit from this. I plead God to make politicians understand to care less about their pockets, but more about their people.

RT: Mr Yona Metzger, thank you very much for your time.

YM: Thank you.