In my last column, noting that the Middle East region continued to be ravaged by conflict, I referred to what I described as a few fragile hopes for a better future, citing in particular the lessening of fighting in much of Syria and the ceasefire in Yemen that was due to come into effect on Sunday. Somewhat battered by recent events, those fragile hopes remain, although something resembling normality, in terms of a lack of strife and an end to the displacement of millions, is surely many years away.
Meanwhile, on the edge of, but just outside, the conflict zones, Israel watches and waits, the beliefs, policies and practices of its government having slipped largely from the global public eye. It is, perhaps, time to draw attention to a remarkable statement made late last month by one of the most influential Israeli figures, the Sephardi chief rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef.
In a public sermon, he declared that, according to Jewish religious law, “gentiles (all non-Jews) should not live in the Land of Israel”. Should a gentile fail to agree to live according to a set of seven laws, the Noahide laws, prescribed in the Jewish scriptures, the Talmud, he said, “we should send him to Saudi Arabia. When the true and complete redemption arrives, that is what we will do.”
Rabbi Yosef went on to say that the only reason for allowing them to stay was that the Messiah had yet to arrive. “If our hand were firm, if we had the power to rule, that’s what we should do. But the thing is, our hand is not firm, and we are waiting for the Messiah,” he added.
Rabbi Yosef, though, had words of reassurance to offer the millions of Muslims and Christians, Palestinians and others, who live in the lands over which Israel's government rules. Those who agreed to live by the Noahide laws, he said, would be allowed to stay.
“Who, otherwise be the servants? Who will be our helpers? This is why we leave them in Israel, ” he said.
It's fair to note that his statement has attracted severe criticism.
Jonathon Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, which normally concerns itself with attacking those who are deemed to be hostile to Israel and Jews, said that Rabbi Yosef's remarks were "shocking and unacceptable".
“It is unconscionable that the chief rabbi, an official representative of the state of Israel, would express such intolerant and ignorant views about Israel’s non-Jewish population – including the millions of non-Jewish citizens,” he said.
“As a spiritual leader, Rabbi Yosef should be using his influence to preach tolerance and compassion towards others, regardless of their faith.”
Such “intolerant and ignorant views” emanate not only from the Sephardi chief rabbi, however. One of the main strains of modern Judaism is Reform or Liberal Judaism, estimated to count among its adherents over a third of the 5.3 million Jews in the United States, although probably fewer than 5 per cent of those in Israel itself.
Last year, Israel's religious services minister said: "Let's just say there's a problem as soon as a Reform Jew stops following the Jewish law. I can't allow myself to say that such a person is a Jew." One member of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, compared Reform Jews to mentally ill patients, while another said that "Reform Jews are a group of clowns who stab the Holy Torah".
The Sephardi chief rabbi's brother, Rabbi David Yosef, has said that the Reform Judaism movement "is a collaboration with idolatry. Reform are idolaters – simply and literally."
The fanaticism that characterises such statements is not confined to a tiny and marginal minority. It is, rather, to be found at the highest levels in Israel.
The international community rightly condemns the fanaticism of ISIL and its distortion of Islam. Where, one wonders, is a similar condemnation of these views?
Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture