The tumultuous electoral race for the twin positions of Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis of Jerusalem is behind us, with the victors Rabbi Arye Stern and Rabbi Shlomo Amar now safely ensconced in their new posts.
But the consequences of the election results and what happened in the run-up to Tuesday’s vote will have a long-term impact on a political level, particularly in the realm of the Sephardi haredi [ultra-Orthodox] world and Shas’s leadership of it.
To recap the traumatic events that have beset this community and its political leadership in the last year, one needs to go back to July 2013 and the elections for the national chief rabbis.
In brief, Amar fell out with Shas chairman Arye Deri and its late spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef during his attempt to get reelected as national chief rabbi, Yosef died, Amar was totally exiled from the Shas leadership in the aftermath, and his name was tarnished and blackened during the course of the year that followed, while rumors were continuously afoot that he could set up his own party to rival Shas.
Therefore, the elections for the chief rabbis of Jerusalem this week and Amar’s victory could be a watershed moment for the future of Shas and the Sephardi haredi sector.
Deri worked behind the scenes up till the last moment to thwart Amar’s candidacy, despite the fact that his options were limited since he had little control over the electoral body, which meant that Shas had no viable candidate for the position.
But in his efforts to thwart Amar, Deri went so far as to encourage Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, a national-religious rabbi in poor standing with the Yosef family, to run against Amar, promising him that Shas would back him.
What happened next was critical: Deri backed down, and for several reasons.
Firstly, Amar represented a threat to Shas’s leadership of the Sephardi community.
Amar is known as a Torah scholar, and moreover has the ability to speak to the less haredi, more traditional Sephardi community that the current Shas rabbinic leadership lacks.
Although it is doubtful if Amar ever had the inclination to set up his own political movement, the divisions within Shas caused by his exile made it worthwhile for Deri to bring about some form of peace between all sides.
Deri also most likely realized that it would be hard to prevent Amar’s victory, given his all-important support from Bayit Yehudi and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, and the fact that some Shas representatives on the electoral body would vote for Amar regardless of what the official Shas position was.
Although Amar steadfastly refused to speak with Deri, even by phone, Amar met for the first time since the feud began with Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef two weeks ago. Then he held a perfunctory but important phone-call with new Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Shalom Cohen, and finally he received Shas’s explicit backing for the position of Sephardi chief rabbi of Jerusalem.
Deri was finally able to speak with Amar by telephone on election day as the votes were being cast, in what the haredi media described as a 24-second phone call of congratulations once it was clear that Amar would win.
Now arises the question of what this means for Shas, Deri, and the future of the political leadership of the Sephardi electorate that has voted for Shas, both its haredi and traditional elements.
It would seem that although Amar’s election was forced upon him, Deri is nevertheless in a stronger place and the chance for a split in the Shas party is much reduced.
Amar has his victory, and so his honor and dignity have been restored to some extent following the epic feud and his defeat over the national chief rabbi elections.
Importantly for Deri, Amar’s position in a public office means he can no longer directly engage in politics and cannot act as an explicit patron for a new party that seeks to capture part of the Sephardi haredi and traditional electorate that votes Shas.
In addition, Deri can now also claim to be the architect of peace in the Sephardi world, something that is very important to the community, which is sick of the in-fighting and mutual recriminations.
Indeed, in his victory speech on Tuesday night, Amar explicitly thanked Cohen for his backing, while the Yom L’Yom weekly newspaper and Shas mouthpiece published Amar’s name and picture for the first time in a year-and-a-half on the front page of this week’s edition, noting that he had received full backing from Cohen as head of the Shas Council of Torah Sages.
There can be little doubt that this is a superficial, cold peace for the moment, and that the wounds and divisions that opened up within the movement will not be easily healed.
Mutual suspicion will linger while Amar will not feel particularly beholden to Shas, since he received its backing once it became apparent that there was little chance of defeating him.
But it would seem that for the first time since Deri regained full control of Shas after the 2013 general election, he is in a position of greater stability and security than has hitherto been the case, and that the incessant rumors and threats of a split in the party may subside, at least for now.
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