Middle Israel: The rise and fall of Shas

Like Yugoslavia after Tito, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s crumbling estate can no longer be reassembled.

January 4, 2015 03:41
Ovadia Yosef

Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend the funeral of late Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Those who talk of revolution ought to be prepare for the guillotine, said Winston Churchill in 1912 – in a prophetic insight that both foretold the approaching Russian revolution’s bloodshed, and voiced the conservative disdain for all sudden and drastic change.

The guillotines came out this week across Shas’s sprawling political empire, to the sound of embattled party leader Arye Deri’s cry that “the revolution goes on.” But they were not the guillotines of revolution. Not because the passions at play in this party’s public suicide are not genuinely raw, but because its leaders’ war on one other ends rather than unleashes their revolution.

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If anything, this unfolding fratricide resembles not the gallows with which Robespierre, Lenin, Mao and Khomeini announced their arrivals, but the artillery with which Yugoslavia killed itself following Tito’s departure.

Asked 13 ago, during a meeting with Jerusalem Post editors, what future he sees for Shas, Ehud Olmert said: party spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef will go, and Shas will split. One wonders what to be impressed with more – the speed or accuracy with which this prediction materialized.

It has taken Shas’s leaders hardly a year since its sainted founder’s death to split in two, and launch a war whose clash of personalities and ideas will impact the entire political system, and its relationship with charisma.

Shas’s revolution began modestly, when three non-Ashkenazi rabbis were elected to Jerusalem’s City Council in 1983. What at the time seemed like a local squabble within ultra-Orthodoxy proved the following year to also be a problem for modern Orthodoxy, when Shas won four Knesset seats at the expense of the National Religious Party.

Shas’s rise to six seats in 1988, 10 in 1996 and a record 17 seats in 1999, established it as Israel’s largest religious party, and its presence at the heart of the political system. Though it never repeated 1999’s feat, settling instead at roughly one-10th of the electorate, the revolution’s casualties now included not only the religious parties but the Likud itself, whose shrinkage over the past decades was partly Shas’s doing.

It was a great ride.

During three decades of political stardom, Shas had an aggregate 88 Knesset seats, 23 cabinet positions and 17 deputy ministers, while its representatives intermittently ran the Interior, Welfare, Health, Infrastructure, Housing, Communications, Immigrant Absorption, and Industry and Trade ministries, besides of course the Religious Affairs Ministry, also occasionally planting deputy ministers in the Finance and Education ministries.

Inspired by the charismatic and learned Yosef, and driven by a sense of insult in the wake of what they saw as the Israeli elites’ disparagement of Sephardi Judaism, Shas created a sprawling educational system that employed thousands, educated tens of thousands and cost billions.

Historians will wonder whether the corruption this success soon produced was inevitable, but there will be no arguing about its scope. Five of the party’s elected officials, including its educational network’s founder, were convicted throughout the years of various crimes ranging from embezzlement and bribery to forgery. Two got suspended jail terms and three did time, including the man who symbolized the party’s success and is now at the heart of its ride to oblivion: Deri.

The video that aired this week on Channel 2 – in which Yosef calls Deri “wicked,” while explaining that as a convicted thief he is an electoral liability, whereas “no one has anything” on Deri’s arch-rival, Eli Yishai – is a landmark in political history, the first time a dead man rattled the ballots.

To understand the potency of this clip, one must understand its hero’s authority in his constituency – which is unlike anything that ever arrived at the heart of Israeli politics. For his followers, Yosef was a lot more than what David Ben-Gurion or Menachem Begin were for their followings.

Despite the two’s charisma, challenging them from within was legitimate, and in Ben-Gurion’s case also effective.

Yosef’s authority in Shas was, and remains, of an entirely different order – because it is not merely intellectual or emotional, but papal.

The attack Deri faces is not about political conviction, but about religious infallibility. That is why Deri responded by firing unconventional weapons of his own.

Deri’s resignation this week was not unique. That is what Begin did in 1951, after losing half his voters, and that is what Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser did in 1967, after losing the Six Day War. Both used resignation not as a way to leave, but as a way to stay – and the universal assumption is that this is also Deri’s ploy.

What is unprecedented is Deri’s dragging of nine more lawmakers with him, thus leading out of the Knesset the entire Shas faction, except Yishai. That is unprecedented, at least in Israel, and underpins Shas’s abandonment of all its agendas while dedicating all its energies to its internal war.

This loss of political direction was reflected in the absence of all of Shas’s politicians, on both sides of its rift, from two arenas of social distress that flared this week – one in the Tel Aviv slum of Givat Amal, the other in the food-canning factory Pri Galil in the town of Hatzor in the Upper Galilee.

In Tel Aviv, residents were forcefully evacuated from shacks where they had lived illegally for years, on land now designated for luxurious skyscrapers. And up north, a factory was being closed down, leaving 200 people jobless.

Politicians from Meretz, Labor, Bayit Yehudi and other parties responded to both scenes, seeking alternative residence for the evacuees, and new investors for the factory. Shas, which for three decades saw in such situations’ victims its natural constituents, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the party’s previous leader was unveiling his rival party, Yahad Ha’am Itanu, meaning “The People Are With Us,” while his nemesis was waging a Herculean struggle to change the subject, from the damning video he faced to the resignations he ordered.

THE CLASH between Yishai and Deri is about more than ego.

The two are entirely different characters, with Yishai’s grayness, predictability and relative lack of imagination no match for Deri’s charisma, flamboyance and enterprise. At the same time, Yishai is the same hawk as most Shas voters, whereas Deri is perceived as a dove who will eagerly help Labor return to power, should parliamentary algebra allow that.

Yosef’s statement on the tape – that it was Deri who led him to back the Oslo Accords and not the other way around, as Deri claimed all these years – will only further deepen suspicion of Deri among his core electorate. At the same time, Deri’s rejection of the Greater Israel theology is indeed part of Yosef’s legacy. Yishai’s teaming up with messianic Zionists is therefore likely to be attacked by his rivals as a deviation from Yosef’s legacy.

Yet the personalities, ideas, tactics and strategies involved in the internal Shas clash don’t matter. What matters is the clash itself, which is proof that charisma cannot outlive its carrier. That is what France’s Gaullists learned after Charles de Gaulle’s departure, what Argentina’s Peronists learned after Juan Peron’s farewell and what Shas is learning after its founder’s death.

The party’s original purpose, to restore its followers’ pride and empower them, has been delivered. As a longterm political idea, it is insufficient.

The charisma on which this project ran is now also spent.

The revolution has ended, and what is left to do is fight over its founder’s estate.

The implications of Shas’s decline and fall will be profound.

Electorally, the party’s decline plays into the hands of the Likud, where most Shas voters originated. As argued here after Yosef’s death, it was no coincidence that his political zenith came immediately after Begin’s departure; Yosef supplied the charisma that Begin’s successors lacked.

Then again, the people who will cast Shas’s lost votes are the children of those who shifted their allegiance from the Likud to Shas. Given a choice between Benjamin Netanyahu and Moshe Kahlon, they might prefer the latter – a lifelong Likudnik, brother of six and son of immigrants from Libya, who grew up in humble Givat Olga before working his way through law school.

In terms of the Left-Right division, Shas’s departure will therefore have limited impact, as the party’s lost votes will be redistributed within the Right. Shas’s decline will matter more within religious Israel, where the descendants of the Europeans who established ultra-Orthodoxy will return to lead it. Shas’s decline will also impact the economy, as populist pressure the party exerted loses clout.

But most important, Shas’s unfolding demise should signal the retreat from the era of one-man parties that it touched off.

Yosef’s formula – of one man selecting and pulling the strings of an entire Knesset faction, without holding internal elections or assembling broad consultation forums – was soon emulated by others, from Rafael Eitan and Avigdor Liberman to Yair Lapid and today, Kahlon.

Now, as Shas’s brave childhood, corrupt youth and suicidal autumn blend with its founder’s bizarre afterlife, voters might rediscover the appeal of the veteran parties – where charisma was never such that it could radiate even from the grave.


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