Middle Israel: The party’s over

Rabbi Yosef’s political revolution, unlike his religious relevance, has reached its end – not because he has died but because it has exhausted itself.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef poster 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef poster 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
‘One should protest,” wrote an 18-year-old student in 1938, “that Sephardic scholars are hiding rather than display their greatness and wisdom.”
Seventy-five years on, as his funeral was followed by the largest multitude Jerusalem has seen since the pilgrimages to the Temple, Ashkenazi rabbis have long learned to respect sages of Middle Eastern stock, as have the worlds of politics, diplomacy, business and academia.
Then again, with all due respect to this week’s unlimited applause for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s political sway, his revolution’s scope was limited and its failures are glaring.
As evident in the lines he penned at 18, Yosef’s original agenda was religious rather than social.
Found by Rabbi Benny Lau in an unpublished notebook while researching Yosef’s rulings, the future Shas founder’s statement was about pride.
Back in 1938, with hardly half-a-million Jews in British Palestine and the large immigrations from the Middle East more than a decade away, the social gap Yosef would later decry, confront, exploit and also preserve had yet to emerge. However, the Land of Israel’s Jewish elite was already predominantly Ashkenazi, as was the rabbinical elite, reflecting previous centuries’ demographic revolution, whereby world Jewry became 90 percent European.
Yosef’s refusal to accept this marginalization was not only emotional.
He actually confronted it from an early age, basing his rulings on 16th-century Sephardic sage Rabbi Yosef Karo, and while at it never fearing to confront and also overrule the greatest Ashkenazi rabbinical authorities. One such anecdotal, but telling, case was his reply to a question about whether to conduct bat mitzvot for girls.
Yosef ruled categorically in favor, despite a ruling by the era’s greatest Ashkenazi ruler, New Yorkbased Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in which he called bat mitzvot “nonsense” originated by “the Reform and Conservative,” and forbade conducting them in synagogues.
This side of Yosef’s revolution, the juridical, will surely outlive him. Yosef not only restored the pride and confidence of Judaic scholars of North African, Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni descent, he also created a vast network of yeshivot, high schools, elementary schools and kindergartens that produces more scholars than the academies of Babylonia ever did.
Yet daring though it is, this revolution is relevant to a comparatively narrow swathe of the public, and leaves open the bigger question: How, if at all, did Ovadia Yosef change Israel itself? YOSEF’S 62 YEARS in Israel’s public arena climaxed neither in his decades as a rabbinical judge nor in his stormy terms as chief rabbi, first of Tel Aviv and then of Israel, but in the 30 years that followed these positions – the years of his political creation, brokering, maneuvering and arguable self-destruction.
Surely, Ovadia’s creation of Shas is with no parallel in Israel’s rich political history. In terms of his movement’s identification with and dependence on him, Yosef’s role is even more impressive than David Ben-Gurion’s in Labor or Menachem Begin’s in the Likud, because their dominance in their parties never made of them one-man shows. And those who did stage one-man shows, from Rafael Eitan in the ’90s through Yosef Lapid last decade to Avigdor Liberman this decade, were no match to Yosef’s magic among his constituents.
What made Yosef unique in politics was what made him unique in religion: his combination of charisma and scholarship. Philosopher William James observed that religious leaders generally fall in either category, with charismatic leaders including people like the Baal Shem Tov and Reverend Sun Myung Moon, whereas the scholars include intellectuals like John Calvin and the Vilna Gaon.
Yosef was both a scholar who knew by heart thousands of books, and a charismatic leader who could capture an unlearned audience like a stand-up comedian.
In Shas, Yosef’s charisma brought the votes, and his intellectual authority decided disputes. That is how the party settled personal disputes, appointed ministers and decided weighty issues without any votes or open debates, like what to demand in a coalition negotiation, and whether to support a budget or back the Oslo Accords.
The success of this formula has been phenomenal. In its first 15 years of existence, Shas grew from four to 17 lawmakers, before stabilizing at a tenth of the electorate in the last five elections. All this success came at the expense of another party: the Likud.
A simple analysis of election results, before and after Shas’s creation, makes it plain that its entire following previously voted Likud.
It follows that the Likud will now wage a war of revenge in order to repatriate the electorate that was once its own. Indeed, from the Likud’s viewpoint, this electorate’s departure was an aberration all along.
To shrink Shas, Likud’s leaders will have to understand why they lost its electorate in the first place.
Shas first entered the Knesset in 1984, the morning after Begin’s resignation. The charismatic Begin’s succession by the uncharismatic Yitzhak Shamir created a charisma vacuum, into which Yosef was soon sucked. To restore his voters, the Likud will have to offer them the kind of charisma that shaped their voting patterns since 1977.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s charisma works wonders in UJA functions in Beverly Hills, but less so in Shas bastions like Jerusalem’s Bucharim neighborhood.
Netanyahu’s tactic in the face of this will be to make extravagant moves involving non-Ashkenazi politicians.
This can include fielding former foreign minister David Levy as his candidate for President Shimon Peres’s succession when his term expires next year, and of popular former communications minister Moshe Kahlon as the Likud’s candidate for next finance minister. In the current cabinet, Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom is the party’s lone non-Ashkenazi minister.
Such an attitude may prove dated, but if it doesn’t, and the Likud manages to repatriate a significant portion of Shas’s electorate, it will mean that Yosef’s revolution has come to its end even in the narrow political sense.
But even if Shas retains a sizable Knesset faction, down in the field Yosef’s revolution has already spent itself.
OVADIA YOSEF supplied his constituency, in addition to the charisma it craved, with a measure of the self esteem and pride of which it had been deprived by Israel’s founding elite.
The party he established was also instrumental in creating thousands of jobs for its followers in its elaborate educational system.
Shas’s voters also appreciated the party’s fiscal populism, which made it consistently demand higher social spending on anything and everything, from exponential child allowances to subsidized mortgages for yeshiva students.
Yet Yosef failed the big social test history presented his life’s project.
This test came with the great post- Soviet immigration, which arrived here powerless when Shas was already powerful.
Much of the so-called Russian immigration began 25 years ago as menial workers. Since then, they have long joined the middle and upper middle classes, whereas Yosef’s constituency remained mostly in the working class.
That is a major failure, which is directly attributable to his encouragement of religious studies at the expense of military service, professional training and academic studies.
The Russians, by contrast, flocked to the army and to the universities, realizing the former is the entry ticket to the Israeli mainstream, and the latter is the key to success in a modern economy.
In recent years, Yosef has lent his quiet approval to newly opened colleges, including one led by his daughter, where ultra-Orthodox men and women study professions like law, computers and accounting.
Sadly, he never said something about this publicly and openly, possibly because that would have constituted an admission of failure on his part.
In any event, the proliferation of such colleges means that his political project’s great effort, to make thousands of young non-Ashkenazim join ultra-Orthodoxy’s avoidance of professional fulfillment, has exhausted itself.
Whether or not this will ultimately generate a new voting pattern in the ballots, there is a growing “voting by the feet” movement against this formula.
In one realm, however, Yosef’s political impact will prove timeless: peace.
At the moment, people remember his occasional anti-Palestinian exhortations, which were mostly spontaneous responses to specific events. Such pronouncements don’t matter when it comes to decisions.
In this regard, what will matter is Yosef’s principle ruling in 1979 that turning over land for peace is permissible, when experts deem it lifesaving.
This statement will be referred to in the future whenever such deals are tabled, not necessarily in order to adopt them, but to counter messianic rabbis’ claim that relinquishing land is religiously forbidden, even for peace.
Yosef’s political revolution may be over, his social impact may prove limited and his land-forpeace ruling may take generations to take effect, but thousands of his other rulings leave him in a position to last the ages, like his alteregos Karo and Maimonides: relevant, followed and revered. www.middleisrael.net