When Israel’s Interior Ministry announced approval of plans for 1,600 new homes for Orthodox Jews in East Jerusalem on Monday, March 8, embarrassing the visiting Vice President Joe Biden, Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party found himself in the hot seat. After toughing it out for two days while the heat kept rising–President Obama himself singled out the Shas leader for blame at one point–Yishai decided to eat some humble pie.
Not a big helping, mind you. In talmudic terms his slice of pie might be described as kazayit–no bigger than an olive and therefore not legally actionable. He apologized for the timing of the announcement, but not for the construction plan itself. As the Jerusalem Post reported,
Yishai did not call the vice president directly but he passed along a message that he regretted the timing of the announcement, which was not discussed with him or with other senior ministry officials. He said he was unaware that a planning committee in Jerusalem would be discussing the matter during Biden’s visit and that had he had known about the matter, he would have recommended that the announcement be delayed.“The approval was a purely technical matter and we had no intention of insulting or seeking a confrontation with the US vice president,” Yishai said in radio interviews.
Still, you might suppose that the gesture cleared things up and got Yishai and Shas back in the good graces of the White House. But you would suppose wrong. Eight days later, on Thursday, March 17, an editorial appeared in Day to Day, the Shas party’s official daily newspaper, calling President Obama a “Palestinian stone throwing youth in East Jerusalem, and not a strategic leader,” according to a report in Haaretz.
Shas is a relative late-comer to Israeli politics. It arose in the mid-1980s as a voice for the grievances of the so-called Mizrahi Jews, immigrants and children of immigrants from the Arab and Muslim world. So it’s an outfit that knows a thing or two about prejudice and discrimination.
As the party organ explained it, Obama’s demand for a building freeze in East Jerusalem is “a creative solution coming from an Islamic extremist.”
But, it said, the president’s supposed Muslim faith hadn’t prepared him for the complexities of the Middle East. “He does not understand his mistake, but at the end of the day, it will harm him and the U.S.,” the editorial said.
“While Obama is a Muslim, he does not know the Arabs who live amongst us. Today it is here, but tomorrow it will be in the U.S. and Europe.”
This story "Shas Explains American Policy" was written by J.J. Goldberg.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).