What was unimaginable for many is now reality. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual
leader of the Shas movement, has died and the party is left rudderless in stormy
seas, without the authoritative voice of its former captain.
rabbi did not groom a successor, and no single candidate for the role will ever
be able to approach the command of the party that Yosef wielded.
worryingly for Shas, the return of Arye Deri to lead the party for a second
time, following his conviction on corruption charges and subsequent political
exile, created serious political divisions within the movement while Yosef was
Then-party chairman Eli Yishai fought fiercely to prevent
Deri from supplanting him as Shas political leader, but failed. Unity was never
restored, and discontent within Shas among Yishai loyalists, including senior
MKs, has smoldered in the year since Deri was brought back to the party
leadership by Yosef.
Yishai himself has quietly rejected Deri’s authority
since the latter was formally appointed party chairman in May, to the extent
that Deri spoke out against Yishai two months ago for acting like “a one-man
These divisions are now expected to become ever deeper, with
political recriminations likely to turn into a full-blown internal conflict in
the coming months and years.
The only real authority either Deri – or his
predecessor Yishai – as Shas chairman had, was closeness to Yosef and ability to
say that Yosef had ruled a certain way.
The authority vacuum left by
Yosef means that the fighting political factions may try to claim for themselves
the right to their spiritual mentor’s legacy, and thereby permit themselves to
ignore any new rabbinic authority set up by the opposing side.
As a Shas
source commented recently to The Jerusalem Post, the likelihood that Shas will
continue to be the single and united force of the Sephardi community much beyond
the next general election is small.
Two serious incidents this year have
already shown how the future might look for the Shas party.
general election this past January, two new parties competed with Shas for
One was headed by Haim Amsalem, a renegade Shas MK who
spoke out against Shas policy on several issues and was eventually expelled by
His new party, Am Shalem, sought to take moderate, religious
voters away from Shas and garnered over 40,000 votes, although this was not
enough to pass the electoral threshold and enter the Knesset.
party headed by maverick Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak also competed for the votes of
devoutly religious Sephardim, and took upwards of 20,000 votes.
himself, in defending Shas’s showing of 11 Knesset seats in the elections, said
that the votes lost to Amsalem and Yitzhak represented three Knesset seats lost
The second serious challenge to Yosef and Shas, also occurring
this year, was the campaign led by former Sephardi chief rabbi Shlomo Amar
against the Shas candidate for Sephardi chief rabbi, Yosef’s son Rabbi Yitzhak
Amar, angered by the fact that Deri scuppered legislation to allow
him to serve a second term, backed Rabbi Tzion Boaron, a senior rabbi on the
Supreme Rabbinical Court against Yitzhak Yosef, and refused to back down despite
the request of Yosef senior.
Ultimately, Yitzhak Yosef prevailed, but
Boaron managed to gain close to 20 percent of the vote, in the face of Shas
domination of the electoral body and a strong national-religious
The political challenges to Yosef’s authority inherent in the
actions of Amsalem, Yitzhak and Amar do not bode well for a united Shas in the
And the issue of political leadership and authority is not
the only serious problem facing the movement.
The basis of Shas’s power
and support over the last two decades has been to a large extent the near
universal attraction and adoration of Yosef by the Sephardi
For many religious and traditional members of the community,
the simple fact that Yosef headed the movement was enough for them to vote for
Without the rabbi, it seems that many Shas voters – especially
the non-religious or traditional ones – will abandon the party for more moderate
incarnations of political religion, or for mainstream parties such as Likud or
Amsalem speculated two weeks ago that Shas will lose 70% of
its non-haredi voters once Yosef dies, and that the party’s political strength
would consequently be scaled back in a way similar to that of Ashkenazi haredi
party United Torah Judaism, which currently has seven Knesset seats.
to who will try and claim to be the inheritor of Yosef, there are perhaps three
or four serious candidates, each with their own advantages and
Having been elected Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef would
appear to be in a healthy position to inherit the authority of his
He is a redoubtable Torah scholar who has written an exhaustive
work on Jewish law. Additionally, the very fact that he wears the robe and hat
of the chief rabbi, which Yosef wore and continued to wear, is a powerful symbol
of authority and respect.
At the same time, now that Yitzhak Yosef holds
a position of public office, he is prohibited by law from being politically
active. He also lacks charisma and until the election, he never held any formal
public office or leadership position.
A Shas source speculated that
Yitzhak Yosef could possibly consider stepping down as chief rabbi, but that
such a move would be “problematic.”
Amar is another potential successor
who served until recently as Sephardi chief rabbi, and was extremely close to
Yosef up until their falling out over the Chief Rabbinate elections this summer.
well-regarded as a halachic authority, although not as highly as Yitzhak Yosef,
and has considerable ambition, charisma and leadership
Nevertheless, his efforts to gain Shas backing for
legislation to allow him to stand for a second term as chief rabbi were disabled
by Deri, who considers him too close to Yishai.
If Deri was concerned
enough to oppose a second term for Amar, he will likely do everything in his
considerable power to prevent Amar from taking over Shas.
Yosef did not forgive Amar for his behavior and subsequent events during Yosef’s
final hospitalization, which soured relations between the Yosef family and Amar
Rabbi Avraham Yosef, the oldest living son of Yosef, is
another possibility. He has greater leadership experience, having been chief
rabbi of Holon since 1998, and was expected to be named as Shas candidate for
Sephardi chief rabbi – until accusations of breach of trust relating to his
tenure as Holon chief rabbi resurfaced.
The fact that he is now
unencumbered by public office and is the rabbi’s eldest surviving child means he
cannot be ruled out as a potential successor.
It will take time for the
fog to clear in the aftermath of Yosef’s death, before the impact of his passing
will become apparent.
What is certain is that Shas, and so too Israeli
politics, will not be the same again.