Progressive groups are wringing their hands at the prospect of Shas returning to the helm of the Interior Ministry.
It last held the ministry in 2003, after which it yielded to Shinui and then the Labor Party. While social justice organizations didn't give the latter high points for implementing changes, they still felt a change in attitude which they fear will be erased should Shas leader Eli Yishai repeat as interior minister.
"Although they didn't succeed in changing the system, their attitude toward aliya and immigration was positive and influenced the whole system," said Rabbi Gilad Kariv of the Israel Religious Action Center. "It's quite clear that the return of Shas to the Interior Ministry is terrible news for hundreds of thousands of immigrants."
Kariv's organization is planning to send a letter to Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asking that Shas not be given the ministry to be "faithful to the legacy of [Ariel] Sharon," who supported immigration and chose to shut the religious parties out of his last coalition.
Kariv and other activists cited concerns that the committee Sharon set up to streamline immigration policies would be stymied, that children of foreign workers without status would face deportation and that local authorities would favor haredi directives to receive much-needed Interior Ministry funding.
"Arabs and non-Jews will suffer" under a Yishai-led ministry, warned Oded Feller, an attorney for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel. He noted that Yishai introduced the policy blocking Palestinians from joining their Israeli spouses and opposed granting status to foreign parents of children who are citizens, even those serving in the IDF.
But Yossi Fuchs of the Legal Forum for the State of Israel defended Shas for maintaining the country's Jewish character.
Noting that he spoke only for himself and not his organization, he said, "The only thing that makes our state unique is that it's the only Jewish state in the world." He said that if the state became "pluralistic," it will only be a poor imitation of the US.
He charged Shinui and Labor with doing "a lot of damage" while they controlled the ministry, though he didn't point to any specific policies.
Shevy Korzen, executive director of the Hot Line for Foreign Workers, however, said Shas went so far in preserving Israel's Jewish identity that it "made life as difficult as possible... for anyone that didn't seem Jewish enough to the clerks working there."
She added that a Shas administration didn't have to mean a return to such treatment.
The new Interior Ministry must be "willing to accept everyone who resides in Israel as an equal," she said. "I don't think it's a matter of what party you're in."