How did Shas chairman Arye Deri succeed in returning to the leadership of the party from which he was forcibly torn, as a result of his conviction on bribery charges and his subsequent imprisonment in 1999? This question – perplexing enough when it occurred after the general election in 2013, when Deri once again became the sole leader of Shas – became even harder to understand after a video was broadcast last December in which Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the party’s late spiritual leader, is seen and heard calling the current Shas leader “an evil man” who did not listen to instructions.
In the video – recorded in 2008, five years before Deri was reinstalled as party chairman – Yosef says he did not want to bring him back to the party, even after his mandatory period of exclusion from frontline politics was up.
But, the question has been asked, how was it that Yosef was so ardently against bringing Deri back in 2008 yet in October 2012, he agreed Deri could return to the party, then in May 2013 appointed him sole chairman once again? Speaking to The Jerusalem Post this week, Shas founder and outgoing MK Nissim Ze’ev explained that Yosef’s opinion of Deri never changed in the years between 2008 and 2012, but that because of his failing strength and health, he no longer had the will to resist Deri’s unceasing pressure to return to the party helm.
Ze’ev, 64, began his public life back in 1978, when he sought to open a school for haredi Sephardi girls, in order to furnish them with a fitting education – without being excluded and denigrated in the Ashkenazi haredi school system, where they had studied until that point.
Ze’ev, 27 at the time, applied to the Jerusalem Municipal Council for a permit to open his school, but was denied.
He opened it anyway but continued to struggle for funding and appropriate premises for the school, and was told by a council member to whom he turned that “if you want a piece of the cake, you have to be at the table.”
To that end, he sought the endorsement of leading Sephardi rabbis – including Yosef – to establish a political party to run in the Jerusalem municipal elections in 1982. Yosef, who had just finished his term as Sephardi chief rabbi, and others gave their backing in 1983, and the party won three seats in the municipal elections that year. From there, Shas went on to contest the national elections in 1984, winning four seats, with the power of the party grew rapidly in the ensuing years.
Ze’ev was always close to Yosef, who publicly recognized him as the founder of the political movement, and he chafes at what he describes as the “ongoing efforts of Arye Deri to distort history and claim he founded the party.”
The MK is known for his fire and brimstone rhetoric, which he frequently intersperses with appropriate quotations from the Torah and books of the Prophets. He recalled with no small resentment how Deri returned to Shas in the fateful days of 2012.
“One month before Deri returned to the party in 2012, Hacham [an honorific meaning “The Sage”] Ovadia [Yosef] said to me that he did not want to replace [then-Shas chairman] Eli Yishai,” Ze’ev told the Post.
“Not years before the event, but just one month beforehand,” he stressed, in reference to the 2008 video.
“He told me in 2012 that he did not want to bring back Deri.”
So what happened between the time of the video, in which Yosef called Deri “an evil man” who was “too independent” and did not adhere to the rabbi’s instructions, and 2012? “What changed was that Rabbi Ovadia was exhausted.
He raised his hands and said, ‘I can’t anymore.’ He gave up; this is the reason. The rabbi didn’t want him period; even in the world to come, he didn’t want to see him,” contended Ze’ev.
The MK said that Yosef, who died in October 2013, was already sick. Reports of his ill health were already reported in the haredi press in July 2012, and the Shas spiritual leader suffered a minor stroke in January 2013 – after Deri had returned as joint leader, but before he was made sole Shas chairman in May 2013.
“There are people who are saying that Rabbi Ovadia did indeed want him and that’s why he was brought back, that he [Yosef] changed his mind.
“Hacham Ovadia changed his mind in what he said, but not in what he thought. He didn’t have the energy to bear the pressure that was on him.
This is the reason; Ovadia said, ‘I don’t have the energy for this.’” Ze’ev said that Deri exerted pressure on Yosef externally, as well as within his own household, to bring him back to the Shas fold. The key, Ze’ev said, was Yosef’s youngest son, Moshe, and his wife, Yehudit – who were closest to the rabbi and had the greatest influence over him.
Moshe Yosef and his wife were initially skeptical but became convinced that it would be in the best interests of the party to bring Deri back, especially given Yosef’s advanced age – 92 at the time – and his declining health, and Deri’s undoubted charisma and political charm, qualities not possessed by the more somber and staid, yet loyal, Yishai.
“Deri knew how to conquer the people inside the rabbi’s house. He conquered Moshe and Yehudit Yosef and brought them [to his side]; they gave him their trust, he conquered their trust, and then they [Moshe and Yehudit] pressured the father. They weep over this now, they mourn this,” maintained Ze’ev.
In addition to the pressure from within Yosef’s family, Deri’s close associates frequently hinted – none too subtly – that if Deri was not allowed to return to the party, he would establish a new political movement.
Opinion polls were even published showing Deri’s putative party passing the electoral threshold, creating more pressure on Yosef.
Ze’ev said that influential Shas figure Ariel Attias, then an MK and minister, also urged Yosef to bring Deri back – as did Rabbi Shalom Cohen, the current spiritual guide of Shas, and Rabbi Shimon Baadani, one of the members of the fiveman Council of Torah Sages of the Shas movement.
Eventually, Deri got his way and was brought back to the party as part of a triumvirate leadership together with Attias and Yishai, and the role of chairman was taken away from Yishai. The triumvirate truculently led Shas into the January 2013 general election – with the party garnering 11 mandates.
Alongside Deri’s relentless pressure to reclaim his place in the Shas leadership, he also attempted to get Ze’ev out of the Knesset altogether by bumping him down the electoral list, the MK claims.
“Deri came and lied to Rav Ovadia and said to him that I had agreed to be put at the 14th place on the list, an unobtainable position that would have left me out of the Knesset in 2013,” said Ze’ev.
“Rabbi Ovadia then asked Yishai if I had agreed to it, and Yishai said of course I had not, and eventually I retained my tenth place spot on the list and remained an MK. But you can see, this man [Deri] is a manipulator, from the womb!”
After the election, Ze’ev continued, the pressure from Deri to be appointed sole chairman was unceasing and Yosef, who had already suffered a stroke, no longer had the will to oppose him.
In particular, Deri claimed it was impossible for the party to function with three leaders and that it was necessary to make him the sole chairman.
“He then brought the other rabbis [Cohen, Ba’adani and Moshe Maya, a member of the Council of Torah Sages], to decide together with the household of Rabbi Yosef that the chairman should be Deri,” recounted Ze’ev.
“Rabbi Ovadia wasn’t able to stand up to him after the elections, he didn’t have the energy.
He was already ill. He said to me, ‘I can’t, I’m weak; I have no energy, I have no strength over this man.’” After the election, it was only a few short months before Deri was appointed by Yosef as sole chairman.
Disputes and factionalism have plagued the Shas Party ever since. Yishai has agitated against Deri from the time he was deposed, refusing to reconcile himself to the fact that Deri had supplanted him as leader.
The conflict rumbled on throughout the entirety of the outgoing 19th Knesset, and came to a head after the Knesset was dissolved and new elections called. Yishai made various demands for greater control over the party, and when they were not met he eventually split to form the Yahad Party.
Ze’ev himself was maneuvered out of the Shas electoral list by Deri, just hours before the deadline for submitting party lists on January 29.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Deri declined a request for comment.
Ze’ev, who taught Yishai in yeshiva many years ago and brought him into politics as his assistant in the Jerusalem Municipal Council in 1983, says he will remain in politics for the time being.
“I will stay in politics, God willing, and will continue to serve the Jewish people – but not in Shas. Shas is not the only thing that we have, there are alternatives to it, thank God,” the MK asserted, though he was reticent to say whether he would support Yahad in the coming election.
What is certain is that Nissim Ze’ev has been at the heart of Shas since its inception, and that his closeness to Yosef afforded him an excellent window into what happened during the time of Shas’s upheaval – when its once and former king returned to his throne.