Who is afraid of Eli Yishai?

Shas' partnership with the Likud proved to be less opportunistic than others had expected.

Eli Yishai 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Eli Yishai 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Israel’s dictatorship of literary conformism stood at attention as Interior Minister Eli Yishai (the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas party), announced his decision to declare Günter Grass a persona non grata in Israel. Grass was heavily criticized in Israel for a poem he wrote in which he describes Israel as a major threat to world peace.
Celebrated author Prof. Ronith Matalon said, “Let Yishai put Grass on the [Mavi] Marmara, drown along with it in the sea – it is all empty criticism. Which criticism would Yishai wish to hear? Since when has he any relation to culture? Did he ever hear of Grass?” Eyal Meged, another well-known author, claimed that Yishai “never read a word of Grass, he has no clue who is he... he is ignorant and racist. It’s a shame for Israel to have him as interior minister. The prime minister should sack him due to his racist, primitive action, stemming from ignorance.”
Yair Graboz, a famous radical artist and publicist, outdid himself by saying that “in the Israeli government there is only stupidity... it’s not about Right, religion or anything else, just stupidity...The link between the banishment [of Grass] and poetry makes sense only to someone who knows nothing but the poetry of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef [the spiritual leader of Sephardi haredim in Israel]. It’s idiotism. Once we talk of Eli Yishai, we do not talk about poetry, and vice versa.”
One doesn’t need to be a genius to understand that the arrogance displayed by these and others is, basically, the worst kind of racism. They excuse Grass, dismissing him as “senile.” That’s the harshest word they could find to condemn him. However, they see no need to spare the interior minister, since it is “obvious” that a Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Jew would never read poetry, and it’s “evident” that haredim are ignorant when it comes to literature.
This auto-anti-Semitic, Pavlovian reaction is not new to the Left, but each time it rears its head from of the feotid swamp of conformist Israeli literature, its rudeness reveals the racist nature of pseudo-Humanist intellectuals. How did Yishai become the target for such harsh criticism, and not the poet and former Nazi? Well, it’s not just racism; there is something deeper to it.
The leader of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party has invigorated the alliance between the secular Right and the haredim, enabling Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to maintain a sustainable government. While former Shas chairman Rabbi Aryeh Deri represented a moderate political figure – carrying forward the appeasement politics which backed the late Rabin in his peace plans, and in addition helped then-Labor leader Ehud Barak to form a government following his 1999 election victory – Yishai was more right-wing oriented.
His partnership with the Likud proved to be less opportunistic than others had expected; the historic tendency of ultra-Orthodox Jews to ally themselves with whatever political camp best served their own sectoral interests was replaced by a vigorous, principled stance with a conservative agenda.
Yishai was much more anti-Palestinian than his predecessor had been, far more strict and stubborn when it came to immigration and infiltration issues, quite stiff-necked when minorities’ rights were involved in his ministry’s affairs. In their eyes, he was a red flag to all those who advocate a liberal, leftist agenda, especially rights groups and the academic, literary and juristic milieu.
With Yishai, Shas is expected to remain an integral part of the right-wing block. Led by an ultra-conservative leader, the party won’t join any liberal coalition, and is therefore justly counted in all polls as another partner in Netanyahu’s right-wing camp, comprising 62-65 MKs. Without Yishai, the game is open.
Should Deri become the party’s next leader, there is a significant chance Shas can be pulled out of the right-wing bloc and thrown into the political stock market of imagined governments and made-up coalitions. Hence, the reactionary, bearded haredi leader presents an obstacle to the Left’s ambition of overthrowing the Likud.
In an article published in Haaretz some two-and-a-half years ago (25/10/2009), the prominent paper’s columnist Gideon Levy argued, “Eli Yishai is the ultimate Israeli xenophobe, Jean-Marie Le Pen with a beard, Jorg Heider in a skullcap, a Mizrahi [Meir] Kahane.” These lines are not just infected with the anti-Semitic hooliganism of a self-hating Jew, but display political sophistication: Meged, Mathalon and Levy et al want Yishai to be a political corpse.
Liel Leibovitz, following Levy’s path in an article published in Tablet Magazine online (9/4/12), commenting on Yishai’s decision to ban Grass from entering Israel, wrote: “If anyone still needs any additional proof that Israel is headed into benighted realms, Yishai was all too happy to provide it. He, and the bosses who back him, acted like every weak, frightened, irrational, and vindictive country always acts.” These lines do not just constitute harsh incitement against Israel and its interior minister – in essence, it is the call of the liberal rabble for the political execution of their most bitter rival.
The author is a journalist and columnist for the conservative Makor Rishon daily and News1 website. The author wishes to thank Mr. Jessie Dlinfor his assistance.