New American Jewish Committee Report Demystifies Israel's Shas Party For American Jews

American Jewish Committee
Thursday, 24 June 1999

In the 1999 Israeli elections, Shas -- the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party -- gained seven seats in the Knesset, increasing from 10 to 17. This put it just two seats behind Likud, Israel's second largest political party. Where did Shas come from? What are the implications of its growing power on the future of Israel's political, social and cultural development?

In an attempt to demystify Shas for American Jews, the American Jewish Committee has released a new publication, The World of Shas, written by noted Israeli journalist Peter Hirschberg. Mr. Hirshberg analyzes the Shas "phenomenon" and explores the paradoxes within the party, its key players, and its diverse and conflicting currents.

In his foreword to the report, Dr. Steven Bayme, AJC Director of Jewish Communal Affairs and of its Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations, notes that Shas is a complex, sophisticated party, full of contradictions that often confuse American Jews.

"In Shas, the observant and non-observant share a common reverence for the Judaic heritage and a determination that Israeli society must remain rooted in the Jewish tradition, broadly conceived. But the acceptance of a spectrum of patterns of observance does not translate into flexibility on the issue of religious pluralism. Shas has sided with other Orthodox parties in support of legislation that, in effect, delegitimizes Conservative and Reform Judaism.

"American Jews, then, have greeted the emergence of Shas with mixed emotions," says Dr. Bayme. "On the one hand, the indication that Sephardi Israelis are participating as full partners in governance of the Jewish State is surely welcome news for all who seek to bridge the divides within Israeli society. On the other, the prospect that Shas may control key ministries that decide on questions of Jewish identification may well broaden the gulf between American and Israeli Jews."

Shas came into existence in 1984 as a direct result of the deep discrimination that Sephardim experienced in Israel's Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox world and the disenchantment it created.

Aryeh Deri, then a 25-year-old yeshiva student, and Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, former Sephardi chief rabbi and preeminent scholar in the Sephardi religious world, teamed up in an effort to create a political force that would represent all Sephardim in the country. Although pollsters gave the new party little hope, it won four seats in the Knesset that year. In the 1988 elections, Shas won six Knesset seats and held them through the elections in 1992.

Shas appeals not only to ultra-Orthodox Sephardim but to non-Orthodox Sephardim as well, says Mr. Hirschberg. The reason for this is that "for many Sephardim, arrival in Israel had left them facing a tragic contradiction: they had come to Israel because of a religious imperative to settle in Zion, but on arriving their religion was threatened by an Ashkenazi establishment insensitive to their traditions and beliefs….Fifty years after the creation of the state, many still find themselves on the margins of Israeli society, and feel excluded from the mainstream Israeli experience -- an experience many of them, especially those who vote for Shas, see as being largely Ashkenazi….Shas has successfully tapped into this sense of economic and cultural deprivation, offering these people a prescription of religious faith, ethnic pride, and social sensitivity….

"Shas has filled the welfare vacuum created by years of government neglect, and because unlike other parties, its activists work with their constituents on a daily basis, not just when elections roll around."

One cornerstone of its work is its ever-expanding education network, which has made deep inroads among non-Orthodox Sephardim. Through its role in coalition politics for the past decade, it has directed government funding into day-care centers, kindergartens and elementary schools, youth clubs and yeshivas around the country.

Mr. Hirschberg adds, however, that while Sephardi Jews hail from North Africa and the Middle East, they do not constitute a unified, homogenous unit, but consist of diverse groups with roots in countries like Morocco, Iraq and Yemen, who do not necessarily share the same customs and traditions. Shas does not represent all Sephardim.

And what about the contradictions Shas reveals as pursuers of peace while at the same time opponents of pluralism?

While Shas has been a force for moderation in regard to the peace process -- indeed Deri was a key player in the Oslo Accords signed with the Palestinians -- it has displayed an ambivalent relationship toward Zionism, the Jewish State, and its institutions. "In the battle between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox over the issue of religious pluralism," writes Mr. Hirschberg, "Shas has played a leading hard-line role, trying to limit any official recognition of Conservative and Reform movements in Israel."

Looking specifically at Aryeh Deri's contribution not only to the birth and growth of Shas but to political events in Israel generally, Mr. Hirschberg notes that "it would be difficult to find a major Israeli political development over the last decade that does not have Aryeh Deri's fingerprints all over it. The architect of Shas's extraordinary success, Deri has for years been one of the kingmakers of Israeli politics, consorting with prime ministers, putting together governments and unraveling them."

Deri made his first political blunder in March 1990 when he conspired with the Labor Party to bring down the national unity government in a vote of no-confidence. In June, two days after Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir set up a new government without Labor, police began looking into allegations of corruption against Deri, claiming he had used state funds for his own personal benefit. Allegations also emerged that he had channeled state funds from the Interior Ministry to Shas-related religious institutions. By mid 1991, the party seemed to be in disarray as other Shas members also came under police scrutiny for misuse of public funds, bribery, fraud and embezzlement.

But Deri did not abandon politics. He regained his former political role when Yitzhak Rabin won the 1992 election and invited Shas, with Deri, into his coalition. In 1996, Deri masterminded the Shas election campaign, boosting the party from six to ten Knesset seats, again ensuring that Shas would be key in the formation of a coalition. "Like Rabin, the new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was fully aware of Shas's power and Deri soon became one of his closest political allies," Mr. Hirschberg points out. To date, "there has never been any serious leadership challenge to Deri.

Mr. Hirschberg refers to the other Shas leader, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, as the "symbol of lost Sephardi religious pride" radiating the clear message that there is no reason to feel inferior to Ashkenazim.

Though not a "politician," Mr. Hirschberg notes that the rabbi's greatest political impact was his announcement in the late 1970's, repeated in 1989, that parts of the Land of Israel could be returned to the Arabs in exchange for peace. He has also supported territorial compromise on the Golan Heights. "At the same time, he is no liberal, having referred to Arabs as 'a cruel enemy' and as 'beasts of prey.'"

In describing the balance of power within in Shas, Mr. Hirschberg says: "It has not always been clear who in Shas is actually making the decisions -- the party boss Deri, or Yosef, the spiritual leader and ultimate authority. Deri is the strategist, the brains behind Shas's success, while Yosef is the charismatic vote-getter. While Yosef is said to make the final decisions, it's Deri who very much shapes them, since he provides the rabbi with the information and analysis required to reach those decisions. It is Deri who determines what Yosef hears."

Deri was convicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach and trust and, on April 15, 1999, was given a four-year sentence. On June 15, he announced his decision to resign as Shas party head. Shas today is clearly at a crossroads and it remains to be seen how the void will be filled and in what direction Shas will travel.

"While Shas makes inroads into the establishment, the question still remains as to whether the party will move toward greater ultra-Orthodoxy and hence greater separatism, or toward a deepening partnership with the broader society," Mr. Hirschberg concludes.

For more information, or to contact American Jewish Committee, see their website at: www.ajc.org

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