Editor's Notes: The Rabbi's dutiful deputy PM

Shas head Eli Yishai sets out a series of uncompromising positions on a number of issues in a rare interview.

Eli Yishai (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Eli Yishai
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Signs of Eli Yishai’s fealty to his Shas party’s spiritual leader, the 89-year-old Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, abound in the offices of the minister of the interior.
Photographs of the venerable sage mix with framed awards to the minister in the corridor outside Yishai’s office. And near the minister’s desk, a series of non- posed, informal snaps of the former chief rabbi engaged in various everyday activities has been collected and framed – underlining the routine, everyday nature of the relationship between the deputy prime minister and his mentor.
Aryeh Deri, Yishai’s acutely savvy predecessor as leader of the party’s Knesset faction, had a reputation in Shas circles for being able to gently steer the elderly rabbi toward positions with which he, Deri, felt most comfortable. When Deri, who might just have become Israel’s first ultra-Orthodox prime minister, fell foul of the law a decade ago, Yosef opted to replace him with Yishai, a skilled politician but no intellectual match. What Yishai is, however, is dutiful.
Aides say Yishai, 47, consults with the rabbi on a daily basis – genuinely consults, that is. He seeks out the rabbi’s guidance, and he follows it. To the letter.
When, at the tail end of this interview, my colleague Gil Hoffman was so bold as to ask Yishai what would become of Shas when, as even the greatest of men must, Yosef shuffles off this mortal coil, Yishai would have none of it: The rabbi should live to be 120, and we could talk again after that.
When Hoffman pushed his luck still further, and inquired as to how Yishai felt about a rumbling Deri political comeback, Yishai, looking only slightly pained, said his predecessor would of course be welcomed back. In what role? That too, like everything, would be up to the rabbi.
Shas was founded, initially to compete for seats on the Jerusalem City Council in 1983, as an act of political assertion by the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi community – a declaration of maturity, and of Yosef-led independence from the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox establishment.
And Yosef, regarded as a peerless scholar in this community – “There’s no one who comes up to his shoelaces,” said a Yishai aide – has charted a unique course, sometimes deferring to Ashkenazi norms and rulings, but on occasion forging an independent, apparently slightly less stringent path.
On religious matters, for instance, he plainly has wanted Shas to be perceived as more lenient, though still emphatically halachic, in its approach to conversions to Judaism. On matters of diplomacy and security, similarly, he has repeatedly asserted the need to make farreaching compromises with Israel’s enemies in the cause of genuine peace.
Often, however, when push has come to shove – perhaps because of an awareness of its voters’ predilections, and perhaps because of an abiding, even subconscious deference to the Ashkenazi establishment – Shas policy in practice has been more hawkish than in theory.
In terms of religious dogma, it has been as critical as any ultra- Orthodox party of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, on conversion and everything else. The rabbi himself has uttered a stream of problematic statements marginalizing non- Orthodox Jews and showing hostility for secular Jews, going so far as to ascribe the Holocaust to the misbehavior of Jewish sinners.
And, on the diplomatic front, though Yosef encouraged the dovish Shimon Peres’s ill-fated efforts to outflank the hawkish Yitzhak Shamir in a tussle for the prime ministership in 1990, Shas abandoned prime minister Ehud Barak’s governing coalition ahead of the 2000 Camp David push for peace with the Palestinians.
In this interview, a rare, extensive conversation, Yishai, presumably under direct orders from the rabbi, also championed a series of hardline positions – beginning with his insistence on the deportation of hundreds of children of foreign workers who are in the country illegally.
The minister was earnest, candid, dogmatic and, in some cases, persuasive. Moderate, in the ostensible spirit of Rabbi Ovadia, however, he was not.
BACKED UP by the High Court, Yishai has been sticking to his guns on the foreign workers issue, in the face of protests even from the current and most recent prime ministerial wives, Sara Netanyahu and Aliza Olmert.
On my way in to interview Yishai, I heard Aharon Castro, the Greek-born founder of the Castro clothing company, recalling the persecution suffered by his own family overseas, and claiming that in Israel’s treatment of foreign workers’ children, we are showing ourselves to have “lost our compassion.”
Castro specifically disputed Yishai’s contention, as stated in a Knesset speech two weeks ago, that the illegal foreign workers were here on “a free ride,” and declared that the imminent deportations reflected an approach that was “not Jewish.”
Yishai firmly rejected the criticisms.
“We’re not talking about orphans or refugees,” he stressed, answering questions in his trademark soft but rapidfire sentences. “I’ve never refused to authorize refugee status for those whom the relevant committee had characterized as a refugee.”
The controversy over the imminent deportations of 400 foreign workers’ children and their families – 800 others are being allowed to stay – was an exercise in “hypocrisy,” he insisted. “These kids came with their parents, who either entered Israel illegally or stayed on illegally. Any normal country would tell them to pack their suitcases and leave.”
Yishai, who has five kids of his own, charged that these parents were “using their children as a human shield [against the imposition of Israeli law], as an insurance policy.” He said he was “more sensitive to these children” than any of his critics, that he had arranged grants to enable the families to return smoothly to their countries of origin and that the proper arrangements would be made for them to ship home their belongings. Over the years, he added, he had intervened to make sure the foreign workers were paid fairly and not abused by employers.
“But if we say yes to these children, we’ll create a ‘baby visa’ phenomenon, opening the floodgates to tens of thousands” of illegals, he said, people who’d come in as tourists with their children and stay here en masse. “Those who recommend this are making a mockery of the State of Israel,” the minister complained.
But why not make an exception for these 400, now that Israel had finally formulated a policy to be followed from now on? Yishai would not be moved.
Prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert had both “made exceptions,” he said.
“Sharon and Olmert both said ‘a bit more and then that’s it’,” he recalled. “But there is no end to it. Next year there’ll be another 1,000 children, and another 1,000. “I wouldn’t let any of them stay here, not 800, not one. Not one family,” he said bitterly.
“All of them have completed their service here. Entered illegally or staying here illegally? They should go back to where they came from.”
GOOD-NATURED THROUGHOUT our conversation, Yishai was similarly unbending, nonetheless, when we turned to the issue of non-Orthodox conversions – the latest installment in the periodic “Who is a Jew” crises that threaten to deepen rifts between Israel and much of Diaspora Jewry.
He chose not to directly answer a question as to whether Shas is taking a significant part in the consultations, being brokered by Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky, designed to find a compromise formula on conversion legislation over the next six months.
Instead, doubtless reflecting Rabbi Yosef’s approach as ever, he said only that Shas was “in favor of bringing in to Judaism those who truly want to convert, which means converting according to Halacha.”
He then chose to cite unspecified academic research into the issue of “Jewish” genes, and asserted – curiously – that “a convert, if he converts through the Orthodox, he has the Jewish gene. If he doesn’t convert through the Orthodox, he doesn’t have the Jewish gene. As simple as that.”
From there, he moved on to lament the accelerating process of assimilation in the US. “To prevent this assimilation, you have to have real halachic conversion,” he declared. That meant saying no, he said, to “people who just want to join a club.” Via the Reform,” he elaborated, “it’s very easy to get in – easier than getting into a club.”
Were Israel to accept Reform conversions performed here, he continued, bringing the discussion back round to the issue of foreign workers, “Tomorrow, you’d have hundreds of thousands of foreign workers converting. There’d be no end to it. You’d lose the Jewish character of the Jewish state. The original High Court appeal [to legalize non- Orthodox conversions performed here] more than 10, 20 years ago, was filed by two Palestinians who didn’t want to leave the country. Foreign workers and Palestinians would use conversion to stay.”
When it was put to him that the whole “Who is a Jew” furor stemmed from the sense among non-Orthodox Jews overseas that Israel was en route to legislate in such a way as to tell Reform and Conservative Judaism that they are not legitimate, however, Yishai was adamant that this was not the case.
“Not at all. That’s not true,” he said. “The High Court has already ruled that anyone who has undergone Reform conversion abroad is registered here as a Jew. This is about the State of Israel. Just as the state’s Chief Rabbinate grants divorces and recognizes marriages by legal entitlement, since the establishment of the state, so, too, it is the authority on conversions here.”
(In fact, in contrast to its monopoly over marriage, the Chief Rabbinate does not enjoy exclusive authority over conversions in Israel, and the current conversion crisis has been fueled in part by efforts by some ultra-Orthodox legislators to grant it that monopoly for the first time.) “We are losing the Jewish people in the Diaspora,” Yishai reiterated, “50,000 people a year to intermarriage. It’s because of the nonhalachic conversions. I tell the Reform to stop fighting against the interests of the Jewish people.”
Plainly, for Yishai, conversion through the Reform is no better than no conversion at all; not for him the idea that even a non-Orthodox entree into the faith is preferable to no connection at all. “To my sorrow, those who convert through the Reform abroad are registered here as Jews. To my sorrow. But if you want to convert here, it must be through the laws of Israel. If you want to be Jewish, welcome, but convert via the Halacha.”
All of which begged this question: Did Yishai, and Shas, believe Israel should be a halachic state? “Until the Messiah comes, this won’t be a halachic state,” he responded without hesitation.
But the fact is, he went on, that “for 2,000 years, before the establishment of the state, we were in exile – in Morocco, in Iran, Iraq, Romania, Poland, Russia, Yemen, Ethiopia, the world over. Without a state, an army, a flag and an anthem. And we survived. Empires came and went while we, the Jewish people, persecuted relentlessly, facing expulsions and pogroms and the Holocaust, survived. We survived thanks to the Torah and faith in the Lord.”
Hammering home his earlier point, Yishai declared: “If we would have given up conversion by Halacha then, we would have been lost long ago. Not because of the disasters that befell us, but because of our own actions. If we had abandoned the Torah, and abandoned conversion by Halacha, we’d have disappeared a thousand years ago. Hundreds of years ago. There’d be no Jewish people.
“So here,” he asked, almost plaintively, “where the Jews have gathered from the Diaspora, here we should give it up? This is a real struggle over the Jewish nature of the state. And we ask the Reform to respect this most important demand, to respect the principle that has preserved the Jewish people for thousands of years. If we don’t maintain the principle of conversion by Halacha, we will disappear.”
FINALLY, WHEN the conversation turned to the issue of peacemaking, Yishai characteristically cited Yosef’s generally moderate approach but, also characteristically, was relatively uncompromising on the specifics.
He praised Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for demonstrating his peacemaking credentials via his public commitment to a twostate solution and the unprecedented freeze on new building starts that has applied throughout the West Bank since November and is due to expire next month.
But he was adamant that the freeze could not be maintained in full any longer. “The prime minister clearly can’t continue the freeze, formally or practically,” Yishai declared, a significant statement given the international pressure Netanyahu is coming under to do precisely that.
“The prime minister made extraordinary efforts to bring Abu Mazen to direct negotiations,” he went on. “Olmert built here, he built there. But Netanyahu went with the freeze. They say Netanyahu doesn’t want to advance the peace process? There’s no greater proof to show the world that he is willing to advance the diplomatic process than the freeze.
“Abu Mazen used to meet with Olmert every few weeks, once a month,” Yishai recalled of the Palestinian Authority president. “No freeze, no nothing. Bibi comes along and does the freeze, and there hasn’t even been a single meeting. So I ask you, does Abu Mazen want peace? If Abu Mazen wanted peace, he’d have shown the courage and come to meet. Bibi has asked, almost begged, every day, but Abu Mazen doesn’t care. He doesn’t want peace.”
Speaking faster than ever now, in tones of ever-deeper indignation, Yishai set out a position far beyond mere mistrust of the Palestinian leadership’s intentions.
“Rabbi Ovadia Yosef said to do everything for peace. But we need the minimal things: peace with security. We can’t make peace with someone who says, from the outset, that he doesn’t recognize a Jewish state. Fatah decided at its last convention that Palestine will not be liberated until the Zionist entity is destroyed. Abbas is not prepared to recognize the Jewish state. He wants to destroy the Jewish state.”
Did Yishai draw no distinction between Fatah’s public positions and Abbas’s? “He accepted the decision,” said Yishai. “Fatah is his party. Fatah is Abbas. He’s the head of Fatah. He didn’t say no. He approved it.”
So why, then, was Israel desperately seeking a dialogue with him? “Because, despite everything, we desire peace. We try everything.”
Then why not extend the settlement freeze? Because “we can’t put our head in the sand. It cannot be that we take steps and he doesn’t.”
Trying to move from the negative to the positive, Yishai ventured that “For real peace, we need a few years of economic peace... which will show the Palestinian people the benefits – prosperity and employment. Then they’ll see that to thrive further, they must sign a peace accord. It must come from the people. I don’t know a Palestinian leader who can make a deal now. None of them is capable. For that, you need the people’s support. But if we have economic peace, the Palestinian people will support a deal.”
But still, if the government so deeply wants to give negotiations a chance, why jeopardize substantive talks by renewing building in West Bank areas Israel doesn’t anticipate keeping? Yishai answered half the question: “First of all, it must be clear that under any agreement, the settlement blocs will be maintained,” he said. “So there’s no justification for a complete freeze.”
Okay. But what about a freeze outside the settlement blocs? Personally, he said, “I also support building outside of the blocs. I don’t accept the claim that the settlements are hurting the diplomatic process, because the Palestinians don’t want peace.”
So much for the Shas position. But what did he, a member of the key ministerial septet, think the government would ultimately decide? “I imagine that the compromise will be that the prime minister will advance building only in the blocs – as a gesture,” said Yishai. “Another effort to advance the political process.”
I ASKED the interior minister whether, as some people have suggested to me, the Ramat Shlomo crisis erupted last spring because he had been unaware that the north Jerusalem neighborhood lies inside post-67 “east Jerusalem.”
Was that why, I wondered, the controversial announcement of new building in the neighborhood was permitted even as Vice President Joe Biden was making a visit here? Maybe someone, perhaps even the minister himself, didn’t realize that Ramat Shlomo was over the Green Line? “That’s not the case,” said Yishai.
“The fact is that no Israeli government ever thought for a second about halting building in Jerusalem. Never since 1967. Nobody considered not building in Ramot, Gilo, Pisgat Ze’ev, Ramat Shlomo, Neveh Ya’acov. 250,000 Jews live there.”
Retreading the vexed territory, he stressed that there was no official ministry or government announcement of building plans in Ramat Shlomo, merely a routine decision by a district planning body. And “the attorney-general has ruled that it is forbidden to interfere with their work.”
Similar decisions were made in the past, including when president George W. Bush and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice were here, he noted. “Nobody made a fuss then...The fuss [in March] was because some people made a panic out of this, to my sorrow. Even the Americans understand that it was a routine decision. What happened was unfortunate.”
But now the mechanism was in place to avoid a repetition? “Netanyahu committed that when there is a visit, we’ll do nothing to create unnecessary tensions,” said Yishai, stressing, however, that “The mechanism is only when there is an official visit – that week or two.”
More broadly, then, did Shas endorse what appears to be a certain limited new flexibility in the prime minister’s thinking on Jerusalem – a willingness to discuss Jerusalem in direct talks and even to reconsider the status of Arab neighborhoods? Yishai was, as so often in the conversation, unyielding.
“Jerusalem is Israel’s eternal capital. Any compromise in Jerusalem would cause unnecessary conflict. I don’t see a compromise anywhere in Jerusalem.”
And that included Arab neighborhoods like Shuafat, Abu Dis? “The Arabs of the city must have equality. I am for equality. I let them build equally,” he said. “[But] I am against transferring sovereignty. Jerusalem isn’t so much as mentioned in the Koran. Jerusalem was given to us by the creator.”