Israel Yeshayahu – The Man and his Deed


Rabban Shim’on Ben-Gamliel says: ‘Righteous people need no publicity, their deeds serve as their commemoration’. (Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 81, Halacha 5).

Writing an introduction to the first book by and about Israel Yeshayahu is quite a difficult mission. After having meticulously perused the vast and varied material - Yeshayahu’s legacy – I came to the following conclusion: As the scope of subjects, issues and activities that Yeshayahu dealt with was so immense and, in order not to over elaborate, perhaps I should concentrate only on four foci which illustrate, more or less, his multi-facet personality:

a)  Yemen and Israel                        b) David Ben-Gurion and Yeshayahu 

c) The Hebrew language                 d) Judaism according to his world outlook.   


Yemen and Israel

The Yemenite community in exile was, perhaps, the most unique of all, identified by three main characteristics: it was, probably, the most ancient of all Jewish exiles; it was isolated and far remote from any other Jewish center and thus, exempt from any foreign influence on its culture and ancient customs, practiced by its members since the time of the first and second temples; it was “stuck” in one place for thousands of years without the phenomenon of thousands of Jews wandering from one place to another, as was the case with other communities in exile.  These three characteristics left, throughout the generations, an indelible mark on Yemenite Jews, both collectively as well as individually.

In fact, the vast majority of the Jewish community in Yemen preserved the purity of its ancient tradition and cultural roots. Moreover, the fact that Yemenite Jews isolated themselves completely – culturally, religiously, socially and, to a certain extent, even economically – from the gentiles around them, led to the two following results: a) Ancient Judaism with its spiritual, artistic, linguistic and customary roots was maintained almost in its original form with no foreign influence; b) The members of this unique community remained complete Jews, in the purest sense of the word, despite persecutions, humiliations, religious and economic sanctions, imprisonments, hunger, diseases and natural disasters.

It was no wonder, then, that when the gates of redemption opened in recent generations and they arrived in the Land of Israel, Yemenite Jews adapted immediately to life in their new homeland and were eager to join other newcomers. Deep In their heart and soul, as well as in their way of thinking and the structure of their spiritual being, they were not only full Jews who were fluent in Hebrew and well versed in the Bible, the MIDRASH and the codes of Jewish law but, potentially, the quintessential sons of the Land of Israel, preserved in exile for almost 3000 years. The quick adaptation of all waves of Yemenite ALIYAH from 1882 until today reflected its identity as Jews of Eretz-Israel with almost no change. It was as if the Yemenite exile “borrowed” them for three thousand years.

In view of this desire to connect and adapt as soon as possible, it is rather strange and unfortunate that their brethren in Israel did not welcome them eagerly. Perhaps this was due to their dark and skinny appearance, or their ancient guttural Semitic-like Hebrew or, perhaps their traditional dress.

What was the reason for that? It seems that the cause of the rift between the Yemenite newcomers and the other Jews who came from various other exiles was the fact that Yemenite Jews were not affected by any outside influences such as clothes, external appearance, dialect, (similar, in many ways, to the development of Yiddish), rather than content or inner traits.

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Israel Yeshayahu (Sharabi) was born in 1911 in the small town of Sadde, situated, practically, in the middle between Ta’az, the city of Rabbi Shalem Shabazi and its rival city, the capital SANA’A, in South Yemen.

SANA’A was renowned for its thriving Jewish community, encompassing a myriad of synagogues, YESHIVOT and Rabbinical courts, revered by all Jewish communities in Yemen.

He was dubbed Yeshayahu after his father Ya’ish. When his parents came to Israel in 1935, he changed his last name to Yeshayahu.   

Israel Yeshayahu was a prototype of Yemenite Jewry. A scholar of unique personality, he was renowned for his eloquence and richness of language. His external appearance, as well as his inner one, attracted the interest and curiosity of others, evoking appreciation, often envy and, sometimes, even alienation. Until he made ALIYAH to ERETZ-ISRAEL in 1929, at the age of eighteen, he never had a chance of wearing “a coat of many colors”, namely, he could never enjoy pampering of any sort.

His parents bore twenty-one children of whom only five survived. As a young boy, he already showed signs of uniqueness and thus, his parents decided to move to a ‘TORAH inspired’ center. When he was only three years old, they moved from Sadde to the capital city of SANA’A, a center of rabbis and great scholars. One should note that children, living in exile in Yemen, experienced no such thing as childhood the way we perceive it in our own society today. The sons or the daughters were not born babies, they were born Jews. Judaism, its commandments and its laws, accompanied them since the first day of their life.

The Jewish mother, though illiterate, could compete with anyone with her Jewish inspiration, her religious experiences and her spiritual perceptions. The Jewish woman was a product of a comprehensive Jewish atmosphere, marked by the imprint of faith and commandments. She was well versed in all the customs and obligations pertaining to her children’s education, her home and her family, and most of all, to the Jewish festivals, the Sabbath, kosher cooking etc. The baby was all enveloped, from infancy, by Jewish tradition, burdened by mitzvoth (commandments), customs, rules and regulations. At the age of two years, the child was no longer considered to be dependent on his mother for his daily care. The father and the mori (the teacher) entered the picture and began teaching him Torah and mitzvoth.

In fact, as of the age of two or three, Yemenite children began their full day of studies in a small synagogue, called “Kanis” (a name given to the European cheder or to the North-Yemen Ma’alama). When Yeshayahu reached that age, he already demonstrated the traits of a child prodigy and thus, his parents decided to move the whole family to the capital. Although the father Ya’ish (hence Yeshayau) was an excellent, skilled weaver, he found it difficult to obtain work and was earning a very meager living. The wages for weavers, even the most talented ones, were too small to maintain the household and cover all the expenses. Yet, schooling and education for the son, Israel, preceded any material matters. Fortunately for the little boy, his teachers were highly educated, some of the best to be found in Sana’a in those days. When he “matured”, at the young age of ten, he was required to join his father as a weaver to provide for the family, as was the custom among Yemenite Jewish families in those days. From then on, his life cycle consisted of Torah and craft, study and work, taking on the livelihood of his poor family while continuing with his studies in the synagogues, especially in the evenings and at nights, often until dawn.

In his article “My Father’s Home” Yeshayahu relates: “The general atmosphere surrounding the Jews in Yemen was imbued with yearnings for some inexplicable elevated cause, perhaps a human redemption, a Jewish redemption, a Godly redemption. Their hearts were filled with a multitude of emotions without them being able to experience their tangible, realistic meaning. Life in such an atmosphere of yearning was rich while poor, enchanted while distressed, elevating while humiliating. A life of eternal longing…”

In Sana’a, at that time, a kind of revolution in Jewish education and perception was taking place, defying the mystic state of mind, prevalent in Yemen. Beliefs in ghosts and demons, superstitions, witch doctors and such, in spite of their having “no leg to stand on” in Jewish tradition, were having a very negative effect, especially on women and children. The generator of that revolution, which, eventually became a movement called “Dardea” or “Dor-Dea” (a generation of wisdom) was Rabbi Yichya Kapach (the grandfather of Rabbi Joseph Kapach of Jerusalem), a renowned scholar, a great interpreter of the Torah and yet, a pure rationalist. Rabbi Yichya Kapach was not simply a school teacher, he also headed a Yeshiva which attracted many young people who came and study according to his very own rule: “Study well, research, and you shall acquire knowledge”. The main sources of learning were books by Maimonides and Rabbi Sa’adia Ga’on, tractates of the TALMUD etc. Rabbi Kapach had doubts regarding the originality of the “ZOHAR” (Kabbalah) book and found non-Jewish elements in it. That book, which induced the reader to look for the unknown and led him towards far remote, secretive and mysterious concepts did not seem appropriate to him for teaching or for educating.

The twelve year old, young and enthusiastic Yeshayahu, was completely taken by Rabbi Kapach’s BETH-MIDRASH (school of higher learning) and had become a staunch admirer of it until his ALIYAH to Israel. That was where the foundations were laid to his vast knowledge of Jewish philosophy, culture and teachings, that was where his mind and intellect were shaped so as to distinguish between essential and trivial matters, and most importantly, that was where the initial foundations of his future, incredible polemical abilities were laid. Already, at that early stage of his life, Israel Yeshayahu demonstrated the first signs of a leader:

a)     The royal court hired the weaving services of his father and, together with Israel, the son, and other Jewish and non-Jewish workers the craft of weaving was developed for the court’s use. The workshop employed some one hundred workers and the person in charge of all of them was the highly qualified Ya’ish, Israel’s father. However, the wages were very low and hardly sufficient for living. The supervisor of the workshop, on behalf of the royal court, ordered the workers to work on a piece-work basis and imposed, especially on the person in charge, unreasonable quotas regarding time and human capacity. The workers complained and protested in vain until the young Yeshayahu convinced them all, Jews and Muslims alike, to stop all work, go on  strike and march in protest to the royal palace. This action, taken by Yeshayahu, contained unprecedented elements in the life style of a patriarchal, Imamic, theocratic, feudal state, such as Yemen was in those days – a hundred men, Muslims and Jews, marching together, to the amazement of all residents of Sana’a. More than the amazement and the surprise that people felt about the strike and the first ever demonstration (and most likely the last) in the history of Yemen, they were shocked to see the native Muslim, the bearer of the pure religion, marching side by side with a member of the humiliated religion, the “protected Jew”. In fact, within hours, the Muslims were, willingly, detached from the demonstration, having been offered some benefits and the Jews, headed by the youngster Yeshayahu, were chained and put in prison for several days. 

b)    The second event was even more significant to Yeshayahu’s life. One day, assisted by his wise and gracious mother, Shamme (Shoshana), he went from Sana’a, clandestinely, to Aden, in order to head for the land of his dreams. He stayed for a couple of days with his parents’ families in Zadde, but, was soon convinced by his father and his brother Chaim (who was later called Sar-Avi and served on the staff of a prominent newspaper in Israel “DAVAR”) to return home, at least to celebrate Passover with the family; “Then, we shall all make aliyah to the land of Israel, please God”, his father promised. He was forced to humor his father and brother but, months and years went by and the father’s promise was never kept. One day, the young Israel Yeshayahu was fortunate to be able to do a great MITZVA (good deed), and as the saying goes: ‘He who engages in a MITZVA will never befall any harm’. That was when the worst of all decrees was declared: Any Jewish child whose parents passed away, would be abducted by the authorities in order to turn him or her into Muslims and save them from the false Jewish religion. In many Jewish homes in Sana’a and in almost every town or village, Jewish children were hidden, for fear of squealers and evildoers. One of the leading activists, engaged in the saving of these orphans, was Rabbi Yichya Nachum, the permanent emissary of the High Court of Law in Sana’a who performed that sacred work with great reverence and modesty. MORI (teacher) Nachum was quite familiar with the energetic and highly educated young man – Israel Ya’ish (Yeshayahu). After swearing him in to total secrecy, in view of the important task he was about to fulfill, he deposited three orphans in his hands and in the hands of another Jewish man, so that they would lead them to a safe haven – the city of Aden. Although he was aware of the difficulties, Yeshayahu took the mission upon himself. He knew that the trail would be long and treacherous and that he would have to reach Aden through devious ways, advance only at night and stop to rest and get some food, only in places that had a Jewish community. He knew he could rely on every Jew in Yemen to do his utmost to help rescue captives, especially orphans. For Yeshayahu, this was an opportunity to tear himself away from life in the Diaspora and, apart from his mother, no one knew of his secret plan. After many toils and dangerous tribulations during many weeks of wandering, he, finally, reached Aden with the precious treasure – three Jewish souls to be sent to the Land of Israel.
Yeshayahu’s mission in Aden lasted for more than two months yet, redemption was nowhere in sight. He was starving for lack of work to be found and managed to make only a meager living by using his literary talents to help Jews write letters to their loved ones in Eretz-Israel. In order to be able to make Aliyah, he needed a certificate, namely, an immigration license that in those days would be given only to a married couple or to a family. What would, then, a single, eighteen year old man do in order to reach the land of his dreams?  The solution came in the form of a fictitious marriage, and to a married woman, no less…. In Aden, he met a Jewish restaurant owner who knew of a woman who was unable to obtain a certificate as her husband was already in Eretz-Israel. The man introduced Yeshayahu to that young woman and as she had some money, they agreed to ”marry”, with the assistance of the Jewish agency, and make aliyah together. And so it came to be. As Yeshayahu had extraordinary penmanship skills, he drew a “KETUBA” (marriage contract) on parchment and rolled it in sand to make it look authentic and that, in fact, was the document that convinced the British official that the couple was legally married. Yeshayahu took the first ship available to Jaffa, through Port Said and was welcomed in the absorption center in Tel-Aviv while his “wife” joined her husband in Rishon-Lezion.

The first day in the Land of Israel – The ultimate aspiration of every Yemenite Jew, the land and the people, the sky and the streets –all Jewish. What more could anyone wish for? What is more real? Dreaming about coming to Israel or the actual Jewish reality in the land itself?  For a Yemenite Jew, dream and reality were intertwined. Yeshayahu was walking through the streets of Tel-Aviv on his first day, daydreaming and wondering, as if he were strolling in familiar paths until, all of a sudden, he got a slap in the face that brought him back to crude reality. And so he recounts: “Amazed by all my eyes could see, I came to a corner and wanted to cross the street when, all of a sudden, a man jumped at me and gave me a resounding slap on the face. I was shocked: What happened? What have I done wrong? Well, it seemed I crossed the street without watching carefully, caught in my thoughts, and could have been run over. Later I found out that the man who slapped me was the late Dr. Optalke
who, eventually, became the director of the Government Health Department. I got to know him rather well and we even became friends, but I never forgot that slap”.

Many a slap did Yeshayahu experience, from his first day in Israel to the last, in his personal and public struggle to be accepted into Israeli society and be genuinely involved in its systems. He wished to be recognized for his strength, his skills and his personal and public capabilities, in order to raise his own status, as well as that of his community, within the Israeli establishment.

Yeshayahu spent a couple of years in RISHON-LE’ZION as a guard and a manual laborer in the vineyards and established strong ties with the distinguished Tabib family (Abraham Tabib was a public figure, a scholar, the most prominent Yemenite public figure in those days and first member of parliament, representing the Labor Party. His brother, the writer Mordechai Tabib, was a close friend of Yeshayahu). He returned to Tel-Aviv in 1932 and began working as secretary to the “Help Your Brethren” association. The association was founded by Yemenite activists, some of them with secured jobs and economic means, who wanted to offer assistance, mainly to distressed Jews in Yemen but, also to newly arrived immigrants. This job was Yeshayahu’s first introduction to the public arena in Israel. He was already known for his fine penmanship and has initiated, during these first few years, the publication of journals such as “LETZORECH HASHA’A” (For the sake of the present) and “HASHOPHAR” (The Mouthpiece). Later, he found a job as secretary of the Yemenite Workers Club. With time, Yeshayahu became a known figure In Israel, thanks to his devoted public work and the many articles he published in the general press of those days – “Do’ar Hayom”, “Ha’aretz”, “Davar” and others. These publications gave him a vast reputation, especially among scholars and prominent public activists who expressed great interest in his unique image. Until Yeshayahu became a public activist and a political journalist, the “trade mark” of Yemenite public activity was mainly lobbying for the bare necessities of Yemenite Jews in Eretz-Israel of that time i.e. finding jobs, social work etc. Yeshayahu’s primary contribution was not only to changing the style and form of public activity but also its content, by making it more advanced and modern. He was the first to establish modern, public activity among Yemenite Jews and, by so doing, contributed to elevating their social status, right from the start.

Assisting him, throughout his public activity in the community, the party, the workers union (The HISTADRUT), the settlements and the country, in general, was his wife Rina, daughter of Naomi and Joseph Badichi. She married Israel Yeshayahu in 1935 and had been his right hand ever since, helping and supporting him as he was making his way up the social and leadership ladder. A noble woman, a certified nurse by profession, she took care of him, watched every step and took part in his joy and misery, failure and success. She lived a life of modesty at the side of her husband, raising their children, entertaining many guests and showing interest in the current events of public and State.

Towards the establishment of the State of Israel, he was, already, an important and renowned personality in the country in general and in the Labor Party in particular. Among former Yemenites, he was the most salient figure, approached by people from various strata of society. However, he was not elected to the first KNESSET. Only after the passing of the late Abraham Tabib, through the intervention of Zalman Aran, (then, Secretary of the party and, later, Minister of Education and Culture) and Ben-Gurion’s support, the Labor party secretariat decided to make Yeshayahu a Knesset member. The problem was that Yeshayahu’s nomination on the party’s candidate list was number 77. It was necessary, therefore, to convince 29 candidates, following Tabib’s name, to resign. I was, at that time, the director of the Yemenite Olim Department in the Labor Party and was asked by the secretary, with Ben-Gurion’s consent, to appear before the secretariat in order to convince the members of the necessity to appoint Yeshayahu as M.K. After a short debate, the party did, in fact, approve. Since then, Yeshayahu served as M.K. – up to the eighth Knesset and, during that long period, his activity grew and encompassed the different sectors of Israeli society. Yeshayahu had become a model for many, not just for his own people. He managed to introduce his special style, overcoming the social and political walls and barriers marked by monolithic public vested interests. Due to his colorful personality, his quaint way of speaking Hebrew had gradually ceased to be unique and different and had become, slowly but surely, the new norm. He was one of the pioneers of the Yemenite community and, actually, of the entire Sephardi community, to enter the circles of the elite public activists in Israel. During that long period of activity, mainly in the Knesset, he was elected to several important positions: Deputy Speaker of the Knesset; Minister in the Israeli government in 1967-1970; Secretary of the Labor Party in 1971-1972; Speaker of the Knesset from 1972 until the political turnover in 1977.

His unique style sounds melodious when he relates the event of his appointment as speaker of the Knesset (“My Father’s Home”): “I remember when I first stepped to the podium, to assume the office of speaker of the Knesset and, before my eyes, the Knesset plenum was set in a round, horse shoe form with the government members seated in the center and around them all the prominent people, leaders of the Jewish revolution. My emotions were overflowing: here am I (just as Bialik, the national poet, once said that he was the son of a bartender from the pitch workers neighborhood), the son of a weaver from SADDE in Yemen, Speaker of the Israeli Parliament, with the government in front and the president of the State in the gallery, and I am the one who is leading the whole ceremony…”


David Ben-Gurion and Yeshayahu

The complicated and ambivalent relationship between David Ben-Gurion and Yeshayahu was a complex human saga, defined by deep emotions and total admiration to “THE great leader, mentor and chief”, together with a periodical sense of alienation, disappointment and strong doubts.

Speaking in Jewish European terms, one might say that Yeshayahu’s personality comprised, simultaneously, the Rabbi and the Hassid. He was a scholar who wished his ideas be heard and approved and, at the same time, a student who obeyed his Rabbi and admired him. It is true that Yeshayahu was an adherent of Rabbis and scholars and would go so far as to underestimate himself just to be able to study with them but, personally, he never concealed his opinions or hesitated to reveal them to his superiors even if those opinions were in contradiction to their own. His integration into the national leadership of the Labor party, especially in its branches in the Knesset and in the Government, never struck roots, completely. He always challenged his brethren in the Yemenite community, for whom he epitomized the “leader of leaders”, telling them they should act by the rule of “separate and together”. On the one hand they should adopt, preserve, and develop their cultural uniqueness, yet, at the same time, they must not isolate themselves within the community. They must join their fellow Jews, break through and integrate into the outer social circles in Israel. Indeed, his whole life seemed to be a social-human laboratory through which he wanted to verify and implement his views. He succeeded in implementing the “separate”, as did the others in his community. However, as far as the “together” was concerned, he came across deep, emotional obstacles which still derived from prejudice against him and, even more so, against those who were similar to him in culture, language, spirit and emotional structure. During his whole life and despite his various positions, he could never break through this thick, yet, subtle wall. In his articles and speeches, he used to tell what happened to him one day when he was standing with three well-known leaders in his party, waiting for a car to take them to a meeting. While waiting, they struck up a conversation. Eventually, the car arrived, the three went in quickly and Yeshayahu was left behind. Ever since that day he could not stop wondering why he was “separated” from the others when he was there “together” with three leaders of the Labor Party…

Yeshayahu regarded Ben-Gurion as a key figure, symbolizing the redemption of the Jewish people and the sturdiness of the State of Israel. He saw him, or, rather, wished to see him as his new Rabbi, one who sees his students and their capabilities for what they really are. For Yeshayahu, Ben-Gurion was, first and foremost, the true, faithful and full expression of the “togetherness”. Moreover, Ben-Gurion was not only the elected Prime Minister of the State of Israel for many years but, also the leader of the Labor party which stood for the value of equality of man in society, culture, economy etc. It is true that Yeshayahu himself was one of the heads and central activists of the Labor Party and, eventually, one of its senior leaders and outstanding spokesmen but, nevertheless, he always had a certain doubt as to whether his leadership was acknowledged a priori or only in hindsight. Was his position among the first ranks of the party, the Knesset or the State, just an expression of a physical, external status or that of a genuine inner one? He was never confident whether he was, in fact, accepted as equal among equals “de jure” or only “de facto”, and was quite distressed about it, sometimes even publicly. His unique and colorful personality, his guttural, scholarly Hebrew, admired by many, his physiognomy, unlike that of his colleagues and, his different background seemed to him to be the roots of the feelings he cultivated that his acceptance as a member and a leader in that “togetherness” was never full and that the hidden, ethnic screen between him and his colleagues was forever present.

He counted on Ben-Gurion, the great Jewish leader, to eliminate all those subtle reservations, affecting him and others like him, in order to do away with the emotional, artificial barriers between the various Jewish ethnic groups. Ben-Gurion’s constant call for a “Yemenite chief of staff” was perceived as a symbol and as a wish to amend all rifts so that any Jewish person, as long as he had the appropriate, personal skills, may achieve any rank and any status available. Although Yeshayahu regarded Ben-Gurion as the unquestionable leader (just as, in his youth, he saw his revered Rabbi Yichya Kapach), and expected him to show more resilience in solving this national issue as well, he was in for a disappointment, perhaps because his expectations were not compatible with the human and social reality in Israel at that time.

Israel Yeshayahu was one of the first people of Sephardi background who managed to break through into the leadership circles. He, therefore, regarded himself and others like him as a criterion to the authenticity of the slogans against discrimination and of Ben-Gurion’s words about a Yemenite chief of staff. When he, personally, was dismayed, he regarded it, quite rightly, as the dismay of all others like him. He, obviously, saw himself as a litmus paper for the whole community: ”If this is the way they treat me, surely they would treat people of lower status in the same manner”.  A number of related words, deriving mostly from misunderstandings or lack of agreement, occurred between Yeshayahu and his revered leader and mentor – Ben-Gurion:

a)     The inner-party policy on religious matters, culminated in 1958 with the election of Rabbi Yitzchak Nissim as chief Rabbi for the Sephardic community. Traditionally, the non-Ashkenazi chief Rabbi of Israel was selected from among the elite, veteran Sephardi community rather than from the newcomers from Arab countries. Yeshayahu and some of the heads of the ethnic communities felt that, this time, the high post of chief Rabbi should not be given to a veteran Sephardi and, in fact, Rabbi Yitzchak Nissim was elected. This was done against the wishes of the veteran Sephardi leaders, headed by Eliyahu Elissar and of a few of the Sephardi Labor party activists at that time who were very close to Ben-Gurion. 

b)    At that time, something very significant happened in the Israeli government. The Minister of Religious Affairs, representing the National Religious Party (NRP), resigned and, Ben-Gurion selected Rabbi Toledano, the Chief Rabbi of the city of Tel-Aviv – Jaffa to replace him. This decision was made due to the powerful veteran Sephardi lobby, which influenced Ben-Gurion to take this step as a counter balance to Rabbi Nissim’s election. This action caused great aggravation to Yeshayahu, who was in charge of religious affaires in the labor party, for two reasons: a) The fear of creating a superfluous inner-party bone of contention between the various ethnic groups; b) A sense of ethnic as well as personal injustice, in view of the election of yet another veteran Sephardi to the government (in addition to Minister Bechor Shitrit) while denying any representation, whatsoever, to the other ethnic groups, especially the Yemenites.

c)     Under the influence of the veteran Sephardi activists, as well as that of people in his close circle, Ben-Gurion published a manifest, sent to Eliyahu Elissar, the ultra right wing leader, of all people, in which Ben-Gurion promised significant positions to representatives of the Veteran Sephardi Committee. The content of that manifest appeared in the newspapers and took many in the Labor Party, especially the Yemenites, by surprise. It caused Yeshayahu, the central figure in all religious and ethnic activities in the party, great aggravation and deep sorrow. He never expected his admired Ben-Gurion to strike him with such a political blow. After numerous clarifications and reconciliation meetings between the “old man” (Ben-Gurion’s popular nickname) and Yeshayahu, Ben-Gurion added to the manifest a letter to Yeshayahu in which he stated that all that was said regarding the veteran Sephardis is valid for the other communities as well, including the Yemenites. However, the relationship between them was already tarnished.

d)    After the elections in 1961, when the government was being formed, an initiative of various factions to elect Yeshayahu as ‘the second Sephardi minister”, had failed. Instead, Ben-Gurion selected Eliyahu Sasson, the renowned diplomat, who was, then, the Israeli ambassador to Switzerland. This accentuated Yeshayahu’s pain and frustration, as he perceived it as further proof that his acceptance into the high ranks of the party was prima facie. After a heated talk with Ben-Gurion, who said to him: “Please remember, Yeshayahu, a world of grace shall yet be created”, Yeshayahu said: “ Whether something came out of those meeting or not, we always came out appeased”.

e)     At that time, Ben-Gurion used to foster the “Party Youngsters”, much to the chagrin of the veterans, Ben-Gurion’s associates, who feared for their status and positions. They established “The Block” with Yeshayahu as one of its founders and leaders. At one of the Block’s meetings, in the presence of Ben-Gurion, Yeshayahu expressed his indignation in view of the new “coat of many colors” given to the party’s young people and his concern that such a move might bring about severe ramifications. Ben-Gurion argued that the source of evil, in his view, was “The Block” of veterans. In reaction to Ben-Gurion’s opinion of “The Block” which included some of his best friends, the members decided to dismantle it, in order to appease him. Later, “The Block” renewed its activities, much to the dismay of Ben-Gurion and the young members of the party. This issue, as well, added to the growing pains of misunderstandings between Yeshayahu and Ben-Gurion.

f)      The “Lavon Affair” (erupted after a group of young Zionists were accused of spying for Israel and arrested in Egypt) was the culmination of the ever-increasing troubled relationship between Yeshayahu and Ben-Gurion. Yeshayahu, at that time, was one of the mouthpieces of the Labor party. Levi Eshkol was elected Prime Minister, with Ben-Gurion’s blessing. The whole country was in ferment due, mainly, to B.G’s standing on principle regarding the establishment of a legal investigation committee to rule between the two parties. This was against the summation of the governmental “Committee of Seven” which argued that its ruling had ended the affair. Yeshayahu had become, almost inadvertently, the spearhead of Eshkol’s group against Ben-Gurion.


The “Lavon Affair” was not just a crossroad but an end to a long road, trodden by the nation’s leaders, Yeshayahu included, headed by Ben-Gurion. It was a terrible tragedy, both personally and politically, to many people in the country, especially those who were considered leaders, as was Yeshayahu.

Nevertheless, deep in his heart and in his approach to history and to Ben-Gurion’s personality (beyond controversies and personal relationships) Yeshayahu continued to see Ben-Gurion as a symbol to Israel’s strength, the Nation’s hero and the unquestionable leader of the Jewish people. When Ben-Gurion celebrated his 75th birthday at the end of 1961, at a time when Yeshayahu vehemently disagreed with him in view of his personal and public attitude towards ethnic groups, he wrote in an article, published in the “Young Laborer” journal: “The scribe of the annals of history will note with amazement, the sane and pure feelings of the people of Israel who look to Ben-Gurion with great love and admiration and bless the fate of their generation for having had the privilege to experience his leadership (…) Ben-Gurion is known to love the “non-Ashkenazi” ethnic groups, especially the Yemenites with whom he had worked and established close relationships in his early days. He was an essential key figure in the implementation of Operation “Magic Carpet” which transferred Yemenite Jews to Israel en mass, when the State of Israel was still in its infancy, coping with endless hardships. However, when Ben-Gurion makes his love known, he does not mean to, simply, declare his love in public, he intends to instill it in others as well…”.


Yeshayahu and the Hebrew Language

Yeshayahu, the all-embracing scholar of Jewish knowledge, who possessed a deep sense of Judaism, recognized and appreciated the contribution of the Hebrew language to the saga of redemption of the Jewish People. What would have happened to that gathering of the exiles, argued Yeshayahu, without the Hebrew language to unite all those people who came from different countries, backgrounds and languages to the Land of Israel?  In a glorifying essay to the Hebrew language, “The Struggles and Victory of the Hebrew Language”, he raises the following questions: Is renaissance possible for this ancient language, which for centuries was used only during religious services? And, not being a colloquial language would it be able to provide all the necessary terms needed for scientific, social, economic, and administrative matters? In reply to these questions, Yeshayahu relates his own experience: “Recently, I had an opportunity to observe a very old tree which appeared withered and shriveled, doomed to be felled. But, lo and behold, from its trunk, new branches emerged, auguring the hope of new leaves and succulent fruit. This made me understand the sentence, ‘And there shall come forth a shoot out of the stock of Jesse, and a twig shall grow forth out of his roots’ (Isaiah 11, 1). The Hebrew language is similar to that tree! Its fate is intertwined with that of the people of Israel. As long as the language is alive, so will they never die.  If, God forbid, the Hebrew language were to expire, it would bring about the disappearance of the Jewish people, as well”.

The Hebrew language, for Yeshayahu, was considered the pinnacle of Jewish culture, the ultimate expression of its political and national renaissance. The Hebrew language is the only spiritual – cultural glue, connecting the Jew who is living in his homeland to his brethren who have gathered from all corners of the world, as well as to the roots of his past. “Among all the actions that were taken in order to unite the various tribes and ethnic groups, none were as successful as the use of the Hebrew language by all… One could well imagine the hellish life of loneliness, alienation, and endless misunderstandings we would all lead, had everyone conversed in his own tongue of origin… Indeed, the best tool for gathering the exiles and forming one nation is the Hebrew language. New concepts, terms, names of people and places and countless associations and memories from our ancient literature and history, come back to life, all in Hebrew, all Jewish”.


Religion, Faith, Nation and Country

Yeshayahu was a believer. The fact that he was a “man of the world” who dealt with earthly matters, day in day out, did not diminish his faith. He was an idealist, namely, a man who sees the world and explains reality from a visionary point of view. According to Yeshayahu, the Jewish religion was not just a series of customs and good deeds, performed as lip service (as the poet Shaul Tchernikovsky called it “to be chained in the straps of the Tefillin” -Phylactery), but a way of life and a content of life of every single Jew. The Jewish religion does not lay difficult obstacles on the path of its faithful. On the contrary, it considers man and his faults, as is written, ‘and thou shall create him only just less than a God’ and, about the Jewish religion, it was written that, “her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace” (Proverbs, 3, 17). Even if Yeshayahu did not fulfill all the Mitzvot to a T, he was a complete, faithful Jew. The Jewish religion, according to his perception, was an existential doctrine that celebrated both the spiritual and the material existence of the believer, as it was written “And he shall live by it and not perish by it”. This perception derived from the heritage he received from the recesses of the treasures of ancient Yemenite Jewry. The Jews of Yemen, throughout the generations, had nothing else but the Torah, the faith and that heritage. As these comprised the only spiritual, emotional and cultural content in their life, the members of the community learned how to “tolerate” and live with one another – the “elite” with the “commoners”, the scholars with the illiterate. The harsh circumstances in exile for such a long period compelled the Jews to lead a life of mutual patience and tolerance. The Jewish religion was designated to keep the Jews as one entity without one person being better or higher than the other. This was the “platform” to understanding Yeshayahu’s religious perception, which can be formulated by two basic concepts: “Patience” and “Tolerance”. All Yemenite Jews, including Rabbis and leaders, shared these concepts before some of them adopted extreme religious and national views, due to social, political, cultural and religious circumstances, totally detached from their traditional nature and religious heritage.

In line with this perception, Yeshayahu was rather broad-minded when it came to judging a person’s Judaism. Although he was quite concerned about exposing Judaism to the religious flexibility of certain streams in Judaism, he severely criticized the members of the ultra orthodox streams who built high walls around the Jewish religion, compiled inconceivable obstacles to stop people from converting and ignored the decree in Judaism which calls for a “live and let live” approach. Time and again he would reiterate in his papers and speeches that: “The need for a national, Jewish existence compels us to be more liberal and regard all Jews as being Kosher, even those who do not keep all the Mitzvot, as per the saying: “A Jew remains a Jew even though he has sinned”.

The uniqueness of the State of Israel and the essence of its existence are marked by a flourishing Judaism. Since ancient times, Judaism never experienced such glory as it had in the State of Israel where it received full recognition. However, says Yeshayahu, the State of Israel is not a religious being and can not be expected to be one as it has to deal, day in day out, even on the Sabbath and on holidays, with science, police, security, economy, aviation etc. Therefore, anyone who preaches for separation of Religion and State, whether he belongs to the ultra-orthodox or to the totally secular stream, has no understanding whatsoever. Nevertheless, he wondered why the religious parties and factions would urge the enactment of religious laws in the Knesset which was, by definition, a secular entity. Were these laws to replace the SHULCHAN ARUCH (The authoritative code of Jewish laws, written by Joseph Caro, 1488 – 1574)? Yeshayahu believed that the place of religion was not out in the open but in the private way of life of the individual who believes in God and fulfills all the MITZVOT. After all, public life in a country is determined by the will of all its citizens and, surely, they do not wish to be governed by a theocracy which dictates: “I make the laws, I impose the edicts”.

According to Yeshayahu, a religious way of life is not necessarily a forced one, as long as it does not jeopardize mans’ freedom of spirit and choice. A religious way of life does not necessarily mean fulfilling all 613 MITZVOT, why, even the ultra-orthodox here in Israel do not abide by all of them, neither overtly nor in private. Following Maimonides and the renowned Rabbi HA’ROE, Yeshayahu believed that gathering the exiles and settling the land of Israel was a mitzvah, equal to all others. Yeshayahu was elated during the first few days after the Six Day War when “scores of Israelis, religious and secular alike, invaded the wailing wall”.  Vis a vis this phenomenon “even a crucial issue such as the status of religion in the State of Israel looses its magnitude and becomes insignificant…”

The Jewish religion, according to Yeshayahu, is not one-dimensional but, rather, multi-dimensional: The flocking to the wailing wall and the identification with the glorious past, the camaraderie of Jewish life in the State of Israel and the Hebrew speaking Jewish laborers, the agriculture and the settlements as well as the defense of the country, all were MITZVOT related to the Land of Israel. The vast majority of the people fulfilled them wholeheartedly. 

Concerned about the very existence of the Jew, Yeshayahu often quoted the words of Rabbi Eliyahu: “One day I was going from one place to another when a man stopped me and asked me a question about the Torah. He said to me – Rabbi, I cherish two things in my heart, the Torah and the people of Israel, but I don’t know which of the two comes first. I said to him: Most people would say that the Torah precedes everything but I say, the people of Israel come first”. 

Indeed, our sages valued the Jewish person even more than the Torah, realizing that “If the Jewish people will perish, what would become of the Torah?” That is why Yeshayahu preached for patience and tolerance, the basic concepts of Yemenite Jewry during its long exile and, in essence, the main, if not the only, content of Jewish teaching since time immemorial. The Jewish religion had always demanded that a person be as moderate and humble as Hillel rather than as stringent as Shamai. It was tolerant and welcoming not just towards the Jew but also towards the converted gentile: “anyone who wishes to convert, should not be over burdened with minute details” (Yevamot, 47).

The status of religion in the life of the individual and the State interested him also from the point of view of its leaders and spokespeople. Even if Yeshayahu ignored, consciously or sub- consciously, the active existence of streams in Judaism that were generally lenient in matters of HALACHA, he was not at all satisfied with the exclusivity of another stream in Judaism, specifically noticeable through the one and only chief Rabbinate in Israel. He wished to break this unity into several groups who were also deeply rooted in tradition and customs, for two reasons: a) Yeshayahu, the rationalist and the distinguished disciple of the “Dor De’a” movement, founded by the Great Rabbi Yichya Kapach, who was well versed with the teachings of Maimonides, perceived the Jewish religion in parameters of sense and cognition as well. Man’s inner conviction, by nature, does not accept things a priori and tends to debate and question them, constantly. Therefore, the decrees and commandments of the Torah may be interpreted in several ways rather than in one, singular interpretation. In his article “The Status of Religion in the State of Israel”, written in 1967, he states:” As far as I am concerned, the Jewish faith is based on cognition and, we know that there are those scholars who even made an effort to find sense and reason in each of the Torah commandments”; b) The second reason had more to do with the sociological-democratic aspect. In the days of Pre-State, when Jews were settling in the Land of Israel, there were several “Rabbinates”, almost in every community, all deeply rooted in tradition and HALACHA and every community had its own nuances and interpretations. When Rabbinate X ruled harshly, in line with its customs and beliefs, Rabbinate Y decided to rule leniently on the same issue. This way, different approaches could dwell side by side, expressing the human spirit of the Jewish religion. This was what Jewish pluralism was all about for Yeshayahu, a kind of golden path to alleviate the strong controversies among the current religious streams in Judaism.

In that same article (“The Status of Religion in the State of Israel”), Yeshayahu writes: “I, for one, find it unfortunate that the State of Israel has only one Rabbinate, adhered to by all. This is not the nature of Judaism, or of any other religion, for that matter. Faith and beliefs should be open to varied hues, streams and, point of views. In Israel it is “either this way or no way at all” and no one dare say, “It is time to innovate”. Here too, just as he did in his many struggles throughout life, Yeshayahu dares to defy the fossil-like approach to Judaism. He calls upon all of us, especially the Orthodox Rabbinate, to dare and renew rather than just maintain and sanctify.

We say: Renew our days as in times of yore and not repeat our days as in times of yore. There is great hope for the existence, development and future of he who renovates on the basis of the roots of the past and the foundations of the present.


Shimon Avizemer





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