The dissident

Shas city councillor Shmuel Yitzhaki talks to 'In Jerusalem' about haredi mayors, Yosef and Deri.

shmuel yitzhaki 298.88 (photo credit: courtesy)
shmuel yitzhaki 298.88
(photo credit: courtesy)
Rabbi Shmuel Yitzhaki of Shas is a fierce opponent from inside the ruling coalition. He has refused more than once to accept a paying job in the municipality in order to preserve his freedom. Yitzhaki makes his living as a hevra kadisha (burial society) member, and is heavily involved in the haredi educational system, mostly on a volunteer basis. Yitzhaki, whose father was a neighbor and friend of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, doesn't say it in so many words but one easily understands that this relationship, along with an old friendship between his mother and the late Rabbanit Margalit Yosef, gives him a certain kind of immunity. During city council meetings, Yitzhaki's open criticism of his coalition peers, including the mayor, often goes beyond what even the fiercest members of the opposition allow themselves. Yitzhaki's main concern is the problem of discrimination against Sephardi girls in the haredi education system. He was the first to denounce the phenomenon and to fight against it, accusing the Ashkenazi haredim, his peers in Shas and also the secular establishment of abetting this unbearable situation. How long have you served on the city council? Since the beginning of 1993. I came in to replace someone from the Shas list who had to leave, while Teddy [Kollek] was mayor. So you've served under three mayors. Any preference? It's hard to believe, but today things are so bad that I sometimes find myself nostalgic for the days of Teddy, and even now and then for the days of [former mayor Ehud] Olmert. Even Olmert, who didn't always bother to give complete answers, at least gave us the feeling that he was aware of our existence. Today it's just smiles with nothing behind them. So you don't think that a haredi mayor was such a good idea for the haredi and religious communities? Not good at all, not good at all. I see what [Mayor Uri] Lupolianski has to undergo, believe me I don't envy him. He finds himself sometimes in such embarrassing situations. Tell us about your background. I grew up in a poor and neglected neighborhood, in Beit Yisrael and later in the Bukharan Quarter. The home I come from was traditional-religious. One of my brothers is a high-ranking officer in the IDF, another one was a soldier in one of the elite units, and although I am sad that they are not so close today to the traditions, we as brothers are still very close. Did you go to the army yourself? Yes of course, I did complete service and I still do reserve duty. Two years ago I was called up and was part of the team that evacuated those buried in Gush Katif, and last year I was in Lebanon. It's no secret that you do not often agree with your party. I came here to serve the citizens, not the party leaders. I am accountable to those who sent me to represent them, not to those who establish a career on the city council. But maybe you feel secure, because you do allow yourself to express open and public criticism without fear? Where does your boldness come from? I do not owe them anything. I do not get one shekel of public money, I work here for the public as a volunteer. I don't have to please anyone, I am a free man and I serve according to my conscience. What are your memories of Rabbi Ovadia from your childhood? My father was a barber and Rabbi Ovadia used to come to him for haircuts. In the bad old days, he couldn't always pay him, but when he became famous, he treated my father kindly and paid him much more than the regular prices. Also my father was a paytan (religious singer), he knew all the melodies and also lots of classical Arabic music, which Rabbi Ovadia appreciates very much. So he used to come to his home and sing for him. And my mother and the Rabbanit Margalit were friends from childhood. What did you do before you became a city councillor? I was a close assistant to the old Porush [Rabbi Menahem Porush] when he was a Knesset member. There I became acquainted with Aryeh Deri for the first time and we became friends. I think very highly of him. Recently there has been talk of Deri running for mayor. What do you think of this? This would be the best thing to happen to this city. He is a very capable man, and I know he is serious about it. I wish for us all that it will work out, although the problem is also inside the administration. Today we do not have the best people in the municipality serving the citizens, and you can see the results everywhere. Serving the citizens is much more than planting a tree here or putting a playground there. What are the obstacles for Deri? Deri will not run for the post unless he is sure there will be no other haredi candidate. That is his condition. So everything is, as usual, in Rabbi Elyashiv's hands. If he decides that Deri is the candidate, that will happen. So what you are telling us is that after the first Ashkenazi haredi mayor, we are going to have another haredi mayor, a Sephardi this time? Deri is not just another haredi candidate. He has the support of many non-religious people. But I still think that a haredi mayor is not the best option for the haredi community. Let me tell you what I see and hear. I don't have a car, I use public transport, and I mingle around a lot in the city - Mahaneh Yehuda, religious quarters, the city center, anywhere. In Mea She'arim, the walls are covered by pashkevilim [posters] against the mayor. They accuse him of failing them and their interests. He tries his best to please everyone, so the haredim are furious with him. Do you mean that it is not a good idea to push through religious decisions? For example, I was and am still against the [Shabbat] closure of Rehov Bar-Ilan. I believe that people should be religious inside their home, not in the streets, which are public places. I wouldn't have done that. Perhaps it is because you belong to the Sephardi community, which has always been more tolerant? Of course, I don't believe in going to war against the whole world. But that kind of openness is precisely what the heads of haredi institutions are afraid of. They refuse to accept girls from Sephardi backgrounds, because in their families you may find religious, traditionalists and haredim living together in harmony, but it also means they have a TV at home, so they don't want them in their school. I am also a member of the management of an educational institution for Sephardi haredi girls. Even I do not accept girls who have a TV at home or things like that. I suggest that they to go to the Chabad schools, where it is part of their policy to accept kids who come from families who are not totally haredi or not even religious at home. But I am speaking of the unspeakable shame of refusing girls just because their family names and skin color do not fit in, even if at home there is no TV or any other problem. It's sheer racism, and I will fight against it until the end of my life. Even now, while I am talking to you, I have a list of 40 girls for the first grade, who are not registered in any school, and the schools who refused them are financed by the municipality. This is not only a shame, this is hillul Hashem [a desecration of God's name].