Though Sephardim are a small percentage of worldwide Jewry, they constitute a majority of Jews living in Israel today. Shas, the Israeli political party representing Orthodox and traditional Sephardim, has become a political powerhouse since its founding in 1984 by former Sephardic chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
Eli Yishai, chairman of Shas, currently serves as one of four deputy prime ministers and minister of internal affairs in the Netanyahu government. Yishai began his career as a member of the Jerusalem Municipal Council in 1991, became secretary-general of the Shas party in 1993, and was elected to the Knesset in 1996. He has served in numerous posts under various governments including minister of labor and social affairs, minister of the interior and minister of industry, trade and labor.
Yishai brings halachato bear on his duties as interior minister. He endorsed laws aimed at maintaining the sanctity of Shabbat, opposed gay pride parades, and refused to allow the Holy See to exercise jurisdiction over Christian holy sites in Israel. This year Shas joined the World Zionist Organization, prioritizing the importance of an undivided Jerusalem and joining the ranks of parties more closely affiliated with Zionism.
A native Jerusalemite who is married with seven children, Yishai was thrust into the limelight in March as head of the ministry responsible for setting off the crisis with Washington over the decision to authorize housing units in Ramat Shlomo.
The Jewish Press: What was your reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision to jail parents who refused to send their daughters to the Emmanuel school that, according to the court, discriminated against Sephardim?
Yishai: Going to the court for this matter was not the right thing to do. This should have been brought to a bet din. And the court did not make the right decision to jail these parents. There could have been many solutions to this problem, and this was not the right answer. The Israeli public – not only the haredim, but the National Religious and non-religious as well – agrees this was the wrong decision. Sending them to jail does not lead to harmony among Ashkenazim and Sephardim.
How does Shas try to promote harmony?
Shas has contributed greatly to the Sephardic community in Israel and seeks to provide solutions to many difficulties through the establishment of our own institutions. We have established many schools, yeshivot, day care centers, and other places of learning. Imagine what would have been if Shas had not been around? There would have been many more situations like what we’re seeing now in Emmanuel.
Can you comment on the recent flotilla episode from the standpoint of the Israeli government?
The actions by the IDF were totally justified and necessary. There was no other operational alternative. All the decisions regarding the operation were made after the situation was discussed and deliberated over by the Group of Seven [ministers] in Netanyahu’s inner cabinet, of which I am a member. These decisions are classified and contain very sensitive material that I wouldn’t normally discuss, but I want to respond to the hypocrisy and lynching by the media and those elements in our midst who attacked the government.
There are those in the [Israeli] media who have personal vendettas against our government and who were pressing us to answer whether there was a political failure in our decisions regarding the terrorist flotilla. I answer emphatically that the government made no decisions on the spur of the moment. And all the complaints about the failure of the operation are false and one-sided and harmful to Israel. These elements in the media inflicted heavy damage to Israel’s image. How can we demand that the world moderate its reactions to Israel if, instead of uniting at a time when our enemies want to annihilate us, they join them in their condemnation of the IDF and Israel?
What would you say to Jews who have a hard time explaining or justifying the IDF’s action?
The time has come for us to stop beating ourselves. How else could the IDF have defended themselves against an angry mob out to kill them? Were these peace activists or war activists? Since when do peace activists come equipped with arms, knives and metal rods? Since when do peace activists cry out “jihad” when the Israeli Navy warns them that they are entering Israeli territorial waters?
Behind the flotilla stands a terrorist organization whose only wish is to strengthen Hamas. Gazans don’t need their food and medicine. Every day Israel sends trucks into Gaza with food and supplies. They could have left their goods at the Ashdod port and we would have delivered them. But their sole purpose was to provoke Israel and show the world how terrible Israel is. We acted on decisions that we felt would bring about the least amount of damage. We regret the tragic outcome of what happened, but we have to praise the soldiers for their courage and thank Hashem that our soldiers weren’t hurt too badly. It’s a miracle they came out alive.
What role did you play during the crisis?
I was responsible for deporting the terrorists from the flotilla and I made sure to immediately deport the hundreds of activists on board. As for those we ascertained to have been directly involved with violence against our soldiers, we are deliberating whether to put them on trial in Israel. I also instituted that whoever was deported will never be allowed to enter Israel again.
After the Ramat Shlomo construction controversy, you were quoted as saying, “We will build in every part of Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish people’s homeland for eternity.” As a staunch defender of a united Jerusalem, why did you feel it was necessary to apologize for Ramat Shlomo?
When you invite a guest and he gets insulted, it doesn’t matter whether you’re right or not; you don’t want to make your guest feel bad. That is what happened here. The announcement [of the building of 1,600 housing units] was not done on purpose. We have a committee and the committee meets every two weeks. Vice President Biden thought we made the announcement on purpose [during his visit here]. We should have done it a week earlier. We apologized because our intention was not to insult or hurt him. The apology was not because we think we are not justified in building in Jerusalem. The building will continue. We apologized because he was insulted and we did not intend to do that.
Do you see a difference between building in Jerusalem and building in Judea and Samaria?
I believe we must build in Jerusalem and the Gushei Hityashvut [settlement blocs]. We must continue building in Gush Etzion, Maalei Adumin, and Beitar. We are not going to return these. Olmert also said we have to continue building in these areas.
What terms must the Palestinians meet before Israel makes any further moves toward a peace agreement?
First the Americans should demand that the Palesinians recognize us as a Jewish state. The Arabs lie all the time and say they will recognize us and then they backtrack and say they never said that. Look at the history – Annapolis, Sharm el-Sheikh, Wye . Second, they should stop the incitement among their children in their schools. They continue with their incitement because in order for them to have Palestine they have to eliminate the concept of Zionism. And third, let them declare they are willing to make peace without the [right of return of] refugees. If they don’t agree to these things, then they don’t want peace.
If every Palestinian leader has been unable to come to a decision, should we give them everything and a day later they will come to us with an intifada?
How do you explain Netanyahu’s pushing for direct talks with the Palestinians at this point?
We have the symptoms of the abused wife who always blames herself and says, “Maybe it’s my fault; if only I will do this then he will behave differently.” Netanyahu wants to prove to everyone that he wants peace, again and again and again. And each time it just shows that the Palestinians don’t want peace. Netanyahu is making huge efforts because he doesn’t want the world to say we are the ones who don’t want peace. Will anything come of this? I am skeptical.
Does Shas agree to a two-state solution?
I’m opposed to verbal commitments. Likud says this, Meretz says this, Kadima says this, everyone says they agree, and now the Palestinians have everything in their hand so they don’t need to negotiate. We’re stupid. Negotiations are difficult. Why do we have to verbally agree to things before we know what they are agreeing to? They don’t say anything, while Israel has given up everything. What is there left to give up? When I see that they want real peace, that they are willing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, that they are willing to stop the incitement, and that they give up on the refugees – when they agree to all this than I am prepared to say what I am prepared to do.
Rav Ovadia Yosef has long maintained that territorial concessions are permissible on the basis of pikuach nefesh. After the tragic loss of life following the disengagement from Gaza, do you think Rav Yosef still holds this opinion?
The rav did not change his mind nor did he change the halacha. For true peace we can give up territory with security. If there’s no real peace and no real security, then we cannot give up land. It was for this reason that the rav opposed the disengagement, because he said it would not accomplish real peace. It was unilateral, and there were no guarantees for peace or security. In the meantime there is no prospect for real peace. If there were such a prospect, even those on the right would agree to it.
As interior minister, do you deal with any issues that affect American or Diaspora Jews?
One problematic subject we are presently dealing with is the difficulties facing Diaspora Jews, particularly American Jewish students coming to yeshivot or seminaries, who have one or more Israeli parent. Such a person is considered an Israeli citizen, even though he was born outside of Israel, and by law requires an Israeli passport and a visa. This has caused tremendous difficulties with getting exemptions from the Israeli army. I have been working with the army to allow these visitors to stay in Israel for up to three years without having to renew a visa when they go back and forth. Though it is still in the working stages, we hope to alleviate the problems and distress they encounter.