President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday rebuked Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for his claim a day earlier that Israel had brought non-Jewish Russian and Ethiopian immigrants en masse, and for citing that as a reason he wouldn’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
At a President’s Residence event launching an anti-racism initiative, Rivlin directly addressed Abbas.
“Do me a favor. Nobody is going to change the Jewish and democratic character of our state,” he said.
“We are a democratic state for all our citizens and it is a Jewish state for the simple reason that the Jewish people has no other state. It has returned to its land,” Rivlin continued.
“I was born 80 years ago, when there were a quarter of a million Jews in this land. Today I am the president of a state with 9 million citizens and 7 million Jews, who speak Hebrew and feel that this state is Jewish,” he said, adding that “we came to live in peace with whoever was born and lives in this land.”
Abbas made the comment in a lengthy speech Saturday delivered at an Arab League meeting in Cairo denouncing the new White House plan for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which he said he was cutting all ties, including security coordination, with both Israel and the US.
Abbas, protesting that the plan requires him to recognize a Jewish state, derided the very notion, claiming many immigrants to Israel weren’t Jewish at all.
“There are 1.5 to 2 million Russians in Israel today, some of whom are Christians and some of whom are Jews. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the gates opened. To prove that they were Jewish, they would go to some rabbi, pay him 100 rubles, get a certificate that they were Jewish, and go to Israel.”
He added: “Even the Falash Mura from Ethiopia — believe me, the percentage of Jews among them is tiny.”
Abbas’s comments on Soviet immigrants were strikingly reminiscent of remarks made by Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef last month, in which he referred to them as “religion-hating gentiles.”
“Hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of gentiles came to Israel under the Law of Return,” Yosef had said at a rabbinical gathering.
Abbas’s comments were quickly slammed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz, and were also used Sunday to fuel political jabs between the secularist right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party and the ultra-Orthodox parties.
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman argued on Facebook that Abbas — who is also known by his nickname Abu Mazen — had been building off Yosef’s remarks, which “today received the unequivocal backing from the chief anti-Semite Abu Mazen, who also claimed Israel isn’t a Jewish state and that the Ethiopian immigrants are Muslim.”
Liberman assailed the leaders of both ultra-Orthodox parties — Shas’s Aryeh Deri and United Torah Judaism’s (UTJ) Yaakov Litzman — saying that “for me, anyone who serves in the IDF, works and pays taxes is more of a Jew than Deri and Gafni combined, who spend all day squeezing money from the public coffers at our expense.”
In response, UTJ MK Moshe Gafni said that “the damage Liberman is trying to do to the State of Israel, the Torah and the people of Israel, is greater than the damage Abu Mazen is trying to cause.”
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.