Deri's challenge

The party leader faces a decline in Shas's fortunes following the death of its iconic founder Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

Arye Deri at the President's residence 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Arye Deri at the President's residence 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
In the immediate aftermath of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s death in early October, Shas chairman Arye Deri moved swiftly to consolidate his leadership and prevent a split in the party. The Iraqi-born Yosef, founder and spiritual mentor of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party, was the supreme authority who kept rival politicians in check, the powerful magnet that drew hundreds of thousands of Mizrahim – Jews with roots in Arab countries – Haredim, Orthodox and secular – to the polls. He was in his revered personage a source of Mizrahi pride and identity, and his death at 93 left a huge void, raising questions about the party’s future, Mizrahi political affiliation, the struggle between religion and modernity in Israel, the role of Haredim in Israel’s largely secular society, and the likely fallout for Israeli politics as a whole.
With barely concealed tensions in the party rising, the politically savvy Deri used memorial services to signal his control, vetting who would and would not be allowed to speak.
Within days he had his close friend, the late rabbi’s son, Rabbi David Yosef, installed on the four-member Council of Torah Sages, the party’s highest decision-making body. And he went out of his way to meet confidants of his implacable rival, the former party leader Eli Yishai, in a bid to smooth things over, at least in the short-term.
But in the post-Yosef era the problems facing Deri and Shas are huge. Most insiders believe Deri and Yishai will not be able to work together much longer and that a split in party ranks is only a matter of time. Even if the party manages to remain intact, will Yosef in death be as strong a vote-getter as he was in life? Many Shas supporters are non-Haredi Mizrahim once affiliated with the Likud.
Of Shas’s 11 seats in the Knesset today only four come from the strictly Haredi vote. The fact that 15 percent of IDF soldiers vote Shas reflects this non-Haredi reality. Absent Yosef, the Likud may well be able to recapture some of this large potentially game-changing reservoir of support. Then there is the challenge of other Mizrahi rabbis like Haim Amsalem and Amnon Yitzhak, both of whom ran against Shas in the national election last January, but failed to pass the minimum threshold for a seat in the Knesset. Will they now be able to make more serious inroads, causing significant fragmentation of the Shas vote? A smaller Shas could have far-reaching political and social effects. It could mean reduced capacity to manipulate the political system, less funding for the movement’s vast educational network, and, bottom line, more Haredi Mizrahim in army service and in the workforce.
Shas’s short-term fortunes will depend on Deri’s leadership. For many Shas watchers, Deri, 54, once the whiz kid of the Haredi world, has long since lost his luster. A minister at 24, he was jailed in 2000 for taking bribes, released in 2002, and returned to politics after an attendant seven-year moral turpitude ban, without the same sparkle and charisma.
Partly because of this history, but more because of internal party power structures, Anat Feldman, a leading expert on the Shas movement, maintains that Deri’s star is on the wane. Feldman, of the northern Negevbased Achva Academic College, argues that much of Deri’s power derived from his close ties with Yosef’s son Moshe and his wife Yehudit, who ran the late rabbi’s household with imperious sway. “They were the people who held the keys to Ovadia’s room,” she tells The Jerusalem Report. “And the older and weaker Ovadia got, the more control over him they and Deri were able to exercise. Now that power has gone.”
FELDMAN INSISTS that most leading Mizrahi rabbis resent the way Deri manipulated Yosef and deeply distrust him.
Moreover, she says, Rabbi David Yosef, Deri’s new man on the Council of Torah Sages, does not have anything like his late father’s standing. On the contrary, he is considered a Torah lightweight, and will not be able to confer on Deri a mantle of authority the way his father did. “With the House of Yosef in decline, Deri’s position is becoming untenable. His game is almost over,” she declares.
Feldman predicts that Shas will split between Deri and Yishai some time before the next general election, and that Yishai will base his wing on the spiritual authority of former Sephardi chief rabbi Shlomo Amar.
She reckons the Council of Torah Sages will break up, with two of its four members, Rabbis Shimon Ba’adani and Moshe Maya, joining forces with Yishai, who will have the support of most leading Mizrahi rabbis.
“I think Eli Yishai’s wing will become the dominant party and win at least eight Knesset seats in the next election,” she opines. “As for Deri, I don’t see him running without the support of a major rabbinic authority. If there is a split – and I am sure there will be – I think it will spell the end of Deri’s political career.”
Feldman contends that despite Yishai’s hawkish image, he and Amar will institute a more moderate version of Shas, less deferential to thinking in the Ashkenazi Torah world. In her view, they will promote a return to an older, traditional Sephardi Orthodoxy, softer and more flexible than the Ashkenazi model. This would mean greater readiness to serve in the army, join the workforce, even entertain secular higher education and make peace with the Palestinians.
So far, however, there are few overt signs that this is about to happen. Neither Deri nor the more hard-line Yishai has indicated new dovishness on the Palestinian track. Moreover, the Shas electorate remains predominantly hawkish and it seems unlikely that, in these difficult post-Yosef times, Shas leaders would further risk electoral losses by turning dovish.
As for integration into the army and the workforce, Shas leaders continue to oppose the new draft law for yeshiva students, and, despite claims to the contrary, there is still no serious teaching of the national core curriculum – including math, science and English – in Shas schools.
Education Minister Shai Piron is about to unveil a new core curriculum plan for Haredi schools, which, if rejected, would mean loss of state funding. On the other hand, if the core curriculum is introduced in good faith, it could open up new horizons for Shas students.
In Feldman’s view Shas is about to take a major leap into the 21st century, combining Torah study and observance with full integration into modern Israeli society. If this happens it would be another major social revolution. If not, it would mean Shas continuing to hold hundreds of thousands of Israelis back in a self-imposed time-warp, without the skills or the will to support themselves, reliant on state handouts to subsist and imposing a huge burden on the economy.
There have been two major Mizrahi political revolutions in Israel. In the 1960s and 70s, Mizrahim aggrieved at what they saw as discriminatory treatment by the largely Ashkenazi Mapai establishment turned to Herut and then Likud under Menachem Begin, bringing him to power on a wave of Mizrahi adulation in 1977. The second revolution started quietly in the early 1980s when Ovadia Yosef formed Shas, initially as an ultra-Orthodox Sephardi alternative, and later as a full-blown Mizrahi political home, based as much on Mizrahi as on Haredi identity. Competition between Shas and the Likud for the blue-collar Mizrahi vote was fierce.
In the first national election Shas contested in 1984, it won just four seats. The big electoral breakthrough came in 1996, with the institution of direct election of the prime minister. Shas won 10 seats with many Mizrahim exploiting the new double ballot system to vote for the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister and Shas for the Knesset. The party peaked in 1999 with 17 seats, with the double ballot system still in force and on the crest of a huge protest vote against Deri’s bribery conviction. However, ever since the abrogation of the double ballot system in 2003, Shas has dropped to a steady 11-12 seats and the question of its future without Ovadia Yosef will depend on the way new forms of Mizrahi identity take shape.
Shas grew through exploitation of a profound Mizrahi sense of discrimination and alienation. It was and remains particularly strong in the mainly Mizrahi development towns of southern Israel. It used its growing power to build a sprawling educational network, El Hama’ayan and Ma’ayan Hahinukh Hatorani, which perpetuated the sense alienation from modern secular Israel.
This vicious circle was good for the Shas vote, disastrous for the country, which lost huge potential manpower resources. Indeed, from a Zionist point of view, Shas was a lamentable wrong-turning at a time when social and economic equality for Mizrahim was on a distinctly upward curve.
With Shas currently out of government and Finance Minister Yair Lapid adamantly against financing schools that don’t teach the core curriculum, funding for the Shas educational network could become tight. It is also not clear whether Jewish billionaires abroad, who supported the system because of Ovadia Yosef, will continue to make generous donations on the same scale. Enforced cutbacks in El Hama’ayan and Ma’ayan Hahinukh Hatorani could over time mean less support for Shas and, in turn, further shrinking of the Shas educational network, with all that that implies for the Shas vote. Alternatively, teaching the core curriculum in a serious way, even if only to retain government funding, could produce a new generation more attuned to modern Israeli life.
The key question is this: Will Ovadia Yosef’s passing lead to a third Mizrahi revolution, a secular integration of much of the Shas phenomenon, allowing large numbers of Shas or ex-Shas voters to be proud of their Mizrahi identity, as well productive and proud members of Israeli society as a whole – as the vast majority of Mizrahim in Israel already are.