Reports of the death of Shas have been greatly exaggerated, to paraphrase Mark Twain, but the party nevertheless faces great challenges, some of which were highlighted during the rally Sunday night in memory of the movement’s late spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who died at this time last year aged 93.
One of the major attractions of the Shas party in the past to the traditional Sephardi community as well as the Sephardi haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community was the cult of personality that was created around the revered rabbi.
Yosef was a brilliant, unique Torah scholar and arbiter of Jewish law, who adopted a path of leniency, based on his encyclopedic knowledge of the Torah, and succeeded in restoring the pride of the Sephardi community through his outstanding scholarship and communal leadership.
A large segment of his support came from the people he gave such renewed pride, the Zionist, working class Sephardi community that is closely attached to Jewish tradition if not strictly observant of the particulars of Jewish law.
But those people were almost entirely absent from the approximately 11,000 to 13,000 people who filled the rows of the Jerusalem Payis Arena on Sunday night, and the crowd was comprised almost entirely of black-and-white clad haredi men.
This is reflective of the path Shas has taken since Yosef died. On the declarative level, party chairman Arye Deri has continued to beat the drum of social inequality and the plight of the poor in Israel, principally in reference to the Sephardi community.
But the selection of Rabbi Shalom Cohen as the heir to the spiritual leadership of the Shas movement has probably done lasting damage to the political party’s chances of retaining voters from outside the haredi core.
Cohen is a severe, strict personality, with a record of hard-line opinions in Jewish law and divisive rhetoric, including recent comments that Torah observance and study obviates the need for an army. He has spent most of his career as a yeshiva dean, never held a public office, and therefore rarely came into contact with the non-haredi world.
Much of the non-haredi traditional Sephardi community has never heard of him, although he served for many years as the second most senior member of the Shas Council of Torah Sages under Yosef, and are likely unimpressed by his hard-line attitude and outlook.
And even the crowd at Sunday night’s rally seemed unimpressed with his speech, with a loud murmur of background noise and conversation reverberating around the arena during Cohen’s address. Significant numbers did not even bother to stick around to listen to the Shas spiritual leader’s late speech.
In terms of parliamentary and political clout, it seems almost inevitable now that Shas will lose the support of the masses of traditional but not strictly observant Sephardi voters, with recent polls showing a decline from the party’s current 11 MKs to just seven.
But the polls also imply that Shas still maintains a strong grip on its hard core of Sephardi haredi voters, despite its less than stellar new spiritual guide, and this is why the party’s viability as a political force remains strong.
The Ashkenazi haredi party, United Torah Judaism, has a very stable electorate of its haredi base and is an ever-present in the Knesset, and frequent government member, currently with a representation of seven MKs.
It is entirely likely that Shas will be able to maintain its grip on this level of political strength by appealing to its haredi core.
But the other great challenge facing the party could yet undermine its electoral assets. That is the challenge of unity, which has been an ongoing concern that can be traced back, not to Yosef’s death but to Deri’s return to frontline politics.
Deri usurped MK Eli Yishai as party chairman shortly after he was brought back into the Shas leadership and then greatly angered the then serving Sephardi chief rabbi Shlomo Amar, who is close to Yishai, by torpedoing legislation that would have allowed him to stand for reelection as chief rabbi.
Combined with that is Deri’s style of leadership and the way in which he has dealt with Shas’s local leadership.
A party insider noted in conversation with The Jerusalem Post that many longtime Shas activists and regional party officials have been ejected from their positions since Deri assumed the national leadership or have had their influence circumvented and curtailed.
To add to the list of malcontents, the source added that party MKs and several influential rabbis were dissatisfied with Deri’s leadership.
He said that some of the MKs know they will not make the cut on the next Shas Knesset list, while lower- level party officials that have been slighted have little to lose if they continue to be ignored.
And the challenge of unity was highlighted at Sunday night’s rally, once again by a notable absence – that of Amar, who was not invited to the event.
Amar, who unlike Cohen has grassroots support and appeal within the traditional Sephardi community, has been suspected of harboring his own political aspirations even before Yosef’s death.
Once considered a possible heir to Yosef’s position as spiritual guide, his falling out with Deri has meant that he has been cast adrift from the Shas rabbinic leadership.
The possibility that Yishai could form a new Sephardi- oriented political party under the rabbinic guidance of Amar is a potent threat to Shas’s unity and to its longterm future.
But Cohen was apparently not in a very conciliatory mood either. In a possible reference to Amar, he said that some people demanded leadership roles the whole time, quipping that such figures end up in the toilet.
If offended party MKs, officials and rabbis feel they have nothing to lose though, then the decision to risk all and take on Deri would be that much easier.
But declaring war on Shas, its established institutional strength and still-strong grassroots supporters would be a gargantuan task and the chances of success might not be high.
The threat of inflicting damage is, however, significant, and could be the spur Deri and others need to bring about reconciliation with the disaffected party ranks by guaranteeing them a political future with real influence.
This would be not only politically astute but electorally beneficial, underlined by the fact that one of the loudest cheers of the night from the crowd happened when Deri mentioned Yishai by name and praised him for being Yosef’s “right hand man” during the long period of Deri’s political exile following his conviction and imprisonment on corruption charges.
Amar himself could be tempted by the possibility of being designated as Shas’s candidate for the prestigious position of Sephardi chief rabbi of Jerusalem, a move that could mollify him and take the wind out of Yishai’s fractious sails as well.
Although the era of Shas’s mass appeal beyond the haredi community that Yosef engendered, and the electoral boon that provided, now seems gone, Deri and the Shas party could yet ensure that it remains a powerful force within Israeli politics and society for some time to come.