The Shas movement held on Thursday night the first of numerous events this month to commemorate the death of its former revered spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Jerusalem’s International Conference Center.
The event came as a poll conducted by the Dialog Institute for Haaretz published on Thursday showed Shas’s support down to just seven seats from its current Knesset representation of 11 MKs.
Earlier this month, a poll for Channel 2 by Mina Tzemah showed Shas down to eight seats.
A final memorial event for Yosef will take place at the end of this month marking the one year anniversary since his death.
Speakers at Thursday night’s Shas event encompassed the movement’s leading rabbis, including the new hardline and outspoken spiritual guide of the movement and president of its four-member Council of Torah Sages Rabbi Shalom Cohen, who delivered the main address.
Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, one of Rabbi Ovadia’s sons will speak, as will the late leader’s youngest son, Rabbi David Yosef, who was appointed as the newest member of the Council of Torah Sages following the death of his father.
One notable absentee from the conference was former chief rabbi Shlomo Amar who was at one stage considered a possible successor to Yosef before the two had a serious falling-out over the 2013 elections for the incoming chief rabbis.
MK Moshe Gafni of the Ashkenazi haredi, United Torah Judaism party, said on Thursday he was exceedingly worried by Shas’s decline in the polls.
“Our main battles in the Knesset are against secularization,” Gafni said at a recent symposium in comments reported by the Kooker haredi news website.
“I tremble that the Shas party will lose several seats and that this will damage haredi Judaism.”
Political commentator and former Shas spokesman Roi Lachmanovitz said of Thursday’s polling results that it was a natural result of the direction the party has chosen since Rabbi Ovadia’s death.
He noted, as have several other Shas observers in recent months, that the decision to appoint Rabbi Shalom Cohen, a strict and fiery yeshiva dean with little connection to the public, as spiritual head of the movement has reduced the appeal of the party to the more traditional, less haredi, component of its former voter base.
Cohen has never held public office and neither has he served as an arbiter of Jewish law or rabbinic judge, positions which help connect rabbis to the people seeking advice and assistance with their daily concerns.
He has made a series of controversial comments in recent months, including a ruling that women are prohibited from engaging in academic studies and a statement at a prayer rally during Operation Protective Edge that Israel does not need an army since God fights for the Jewish people.
“Shas needs to decide what its priorities are,” said Lachmanovitz. “Is it still talking about being a Sephardi, traditional party of the broader community or will it be a strictly haredi party like its Ashkenazi counterpart United Torah Judaism?” “If it continues in its current direction into the next elections then for sure it will lose Knesset seats.”
Lachmanovitz pointed to the way in which Cohen reached his position as “maran,” the honorary title bestowed on Ovadia Yosef and used by the party in reference to their current spiritual leader.
“No-one appointed Rabbi Ovadia to be maran. He had support from the people on the ground. Cohen was appointed from above, it’s not that the people chose him to be a leader,” he said.
Lachmanovitz noted that the only senior Sephardi rabbi with a significant measure of public support and influence was Amar but doubted whether the poor relations between him, Shas chairman Arye Deri and the rest of the Shas leadership can now be repaired.
Deri is thought responsible for torpedoing legislation that could have allowed Amar to stand for election for chief rabbi. Ever since Yosef’s death Amar has stepped up his public exposure and sought to widen his appeal and support.