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‘Jews, Not Palestinians, Are Israel’s Indigenous People’: An Interview with Shas Founder Nissim Zeev

MK Nissim Zeev (sometimes spelled Ze’ev) established the Shas Party in 1983 as a response to the discrimination faced by Israel’s Sephardic population. He served as deputy mayor of Jerusalem from 1983-1998 and has been a Member of Knesset since 1999.

Zeev is launching an initiative against the international delegitimization of Israel by publicizing the rights of Jews as the indigenous people of the land of Israel in accordance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and the UN resolutions on the Culture of Peace.

Zeev calls the initiative “very significant especially for the Jewish residents of Judea, Samaria, Jerusalem and the Golan Heights who are constantly under the threat of forced expulsions from their lands.”

A native of Jerusalem who currently lives there with his wife and family, Zeev has served as a rabbi, shochet, mohel and chazzanin Israel and overseas.

The Jewish Press: How did you become involved in working on behalf of Sephardim?

Zeev: Thirty-one years ago, in 1979, I founded a Sephardic school for girls, called Na’avat Yisrael, after realizing the great need for one. The same problems you recently heard about Emmanuel were happening all around Israel. In the Beit Yaakov schools, although both Ashkenazi and Sephardic girls were accepted, most of the Sephardic girls were put in separate and lower tracks. Many complaints were made to all the Gedolei Yisrael, but they didn’t help.

I decided to start our own school for girls and went from house to house promising people they would have the best school for their girls. I got the approval of the Sephardic Gedolei Hador, and in one year I had enrolled one hundred girls. I slowly developed the school until it became a big success.

How did founding a school for Sephardic girls lead you to establish the Shas Party?

Three years after I founded Na’avat Yisrael, Shas came into the picture in the process of trying to find a parcel of land for the school. I didn’t belong to any political party and somebody has to be behind you politically; somebody has to fight for you to get it. But I was determined to get a building for the school, so I arranged a meeting with all the big Sephardic rabbis in Israel in order to start a new party. With their agreement we put together a party to represent Sephardim, and Shas was born. We quickly went on to win three seats in the Jerusalem municipal elections and the same night we declared we were running for the Knesset.

As you say, the Emmanuel case seems to be an example of what you originally fought against. Do you think Sephardim have made advancements in Israeli society? If so, do you think it’s better to continue pushing for separation over integration?

I don’t think it’s better. I’m just more realistic. If someone doesn’t want me, I don’t have to push myself and beg to be with him and say I’m a human being like you. I’d rather say, Thank you very much, I know how to do my job and take care of myself. Sephardim and Ashkenazim exist together now, but the schools still only take around 20-30 percent Sephardim, so we have to provide solutions for the rest of them. I know it’s not coming from sinat chinam; the Ashkenazim just think they are on a higher level and more educated than the Sephardim. The Ashkenazic [educational] background used to be [on a higher level] but it’s no longer so in this generation. However, the mentality of many Sephardim is that they have to be with the Ashkenazim to feel good. Even for shidduchim they think it’s better. There are some Sephardim who don’t want to send their children to Sephardic schools or don’t want their Sephardic names. This is sickening to me. But I’m not a psychologist; I’m a politician who wants to work and offer solutions.

You are currently working to get universal recognition of the Jews as the indigenous people of the Land of Israel through the United Nations. Can you explain this mission?

According to the United Nations study prepared in 2004, “Indigenous peoples and nations are those which have a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories.” Our whole history belongs to the land of Israel. This is our ancestral homeland, and we must stress our indigenous rights to this land. Since 1967 people look at us as “occupiers,” but we’ve been here for thousands of years. We are here because the Beit HaMikdash was here, because Shiloh was Mishkan Shiloh, and Chevron is the city of our forefathers.

We have a biblical connection to the land, but we’re always defending ourselves rather than making our historical claim. We even have to oppose our own Jews in J Street and J Call [Europe] who use the term “occupiers.” We need to stop the delegitimization of Israel both here and in Israel. The Palestinians claim they are indigenous people to Israel. We are working on a law to be brought to the Knesset that asks the government to counter the Palestinian refugees who are bringing papers to sue Israel. Palestinians are taking pictures of houses they had before 1948. So we have to prepare ourselves and be ready for this. We also want Sephardic Jews to document their assets before they were kicked out of [Arab] countries.

Do you think it’s advisable to bring your case to the UN, arguably the most anti-Israel body in the world?

We have to fight our enemies. We have to try to convince them to listen to us and we have to fight for our rights, otherwise the Palestinians will continue doing a very good job and they have excellent PR. I have already presented this plan in the U.S. to Congress, the UN and leaders of Jewish and international organizations. We have to utilize the media, education and culture, both in Israel and the Diaspora, to combat this campaign of delegitimizing Israel. We feel like we are losing. We have to explain ourselves, bring proof and fight for the truth. And the tool to combat this and protect our legal rights is the body of international law.

Do you stress the inextricable link between the historical claim and the biblical claim?

If we don’t believe in the Torah, we cannot explain our history – how we came to have Jerusalem, Shiloh, Shechem, Beit El. Since the State of Israel came into existence we’ve recognized a link between Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael, but we do not talk about it because we don’t want to connect the historical and religious claim.

We are sending forth people [as Israeli representatives] who don’t know Torah, who have no connection with the Torah. They are just political people, and politics is just a game. Look at our soldiers – Israeli soldiers do army duty and then just want to be free and have fun and travel to India and Turkey. It’s not enough to just present the Zionist approach. We have to have Torat Yisrael.

Based on your commitment to retain the land of Israel for the Jewish people, how do you view peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority?

I believe we have to continue the negotiations. We have to continue talking or we will bring more pressure against Israel and more enemies against us. I see big changes in the world, not only in Israel. I see what’s happening with Al Qaeda, in Iraq, Pakistan.

Around the world the Muslims are trying to gain power. Arab culture is divided now – we have Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco on one side. On the other side are Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, and they are dangerous for the world. The leaders of Egypt and Jordan want Israel to at least show that we are trying to make peace with the Palestinians, otherwise their countries will be unstable. It’s in Israel’s interest to show that we want peace. I’m telling you, it is my belief that we can never have peace with the Palestinians. They don’t want it. They can’t govern themselves or support their own economy. Even Arabs in Israel know that the Palestinians, if they are given land, will destroy it in two to three years. And you can’t find a [Palestinian] leader who can say he can take the responsibility for his nation and make an agreement with Israel. The day he will sign such an agreement is the day he will be killed. No question.

In the likely event that negotiations prove unsuccessful, how concerned are you that Obama and the Quartet, intent on achieving a quick solution, will declare a Palestinian state unilaterally?

We have to be worried about that, but what other option do we have?

Don’t you have the option to say no?

Yes. But why should Netanyahu say no right now? It’s been more than fifteen years since we negotiated with Arafat. It could be thirty more years. I don’t really see a solution and I don’t see a partner. I don’t see how the Palestinians could be a separate nation because they already have Gaza. And we can never give them a connection between Gaza and Judea. It would be very dangerous for Israel to give them contiguous territory.

Can you comment on the current conversion bill Shas strongly supports, despite the public outcry by American Reform Jews?

Look what’s happening in the United States. Maybe now the Reform still call themselves Jewish, though more than half are not [halachically] Jewish. The next generation it will be maybe seventy percent. We can’t have the same thing happen in Israel.

No one in America really understands what’s happening in Israel, what the argument is. They think we don’t want Reform Jews to come to Israel, that we are pushing them out from Israel. God forbid! We love all Jews in the world, and we have to be mekarev anybody who is coming to Israel and wants to live as a Jew.

Our problem is that we cannot bring Reform batei din to Israel. This is the only thing that we are fighting for. What began sixty-two years ago, in 1948, has to continue – the same beit din, the same rabbinical center that does conversions. It’s the Torah that mandates an Orthodox conversion and there’s only one Torah. We don’t have two Torahs.

About the Author: Sara Lehmann, a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, was formerly an editor at a major New York publishing house.


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