Deri’s Theater of the Absurd

Whether or not this gambit has paid off remains to be seen.

Aryeh Deri
The political machinations and skulduggery within Shas have always made for good reading, whether the topic of the day is an outrageous comment made by one of the movement’s rabbis, a new twist on a bitter feud in the party, or a particularly cunning parliamentary maneuverer.
But events over the last four weeks have seen the actors in this soap opera really hit their stride in terms of their commitment to the pantomime- like caricatures that they have so diligently drawn of themselves.
First came the split by former party chairman MK Eli Yishai who set up his own party, followed by the denunciations of Shas rabbis and leaders for dividing the movement.
Then the fight turned ugly, when a video was leaked of the party’s revered late spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef who said in a private conversation with his son that Deri did not listen to him and was “too independent.”
The power of those words was too forceful for Deri to carry on as usual and so he made a dramatic declaration that he was quitting politics.
News cameras even captured the moment when Shas’s new spiritual leader walked to Deri’s apartment to ask him to reconsider only to find that the wily politician was not home, having supposedly retreated to the North.
Yet less than two weeks later Deri has returned, saying that he was unable to ignore the instructions of the Shas rabbis who had commanded him to return to lead the party.
The only logical conclusion of this rigmarole is that it was designed to take the sting out of the Yosef video and distract attention from the damaging words uttered by the rabbi about Deri so as to allow him to “return” and lead the party again, once the public discourse had moved on.
The video presented a unique and incomparable problem for Deri, because it cast him as a political leader wielding power of his own accord and according to his own opinion when he was supposed to have been the loyal servant of Yosef who carried out his wishes.
Rabbinic legitimacy is an essential prerequisite for a haredi political party, without which it impossible to operate because of the reverence and awe held by the haredi public for their rabbis and Jewish law, and the ease with which one may discredit an opponent if he is not backed by a weighty rabbinical authority.
So while Deri was on his supposed two-week political absence, the Shas rabbinic and political leadership sought, therefore, to obscure Yosef’s words behind a smokescreen of feigned indignity and convey the message that the act of leaking a video of a private conversation the rabbi conducted was an affront to his honor and more important than the content of his words.
Whether this gambit has paid off remains to be seen.
Since the video was released and Deri resigned, Shas has polled between five and seven Knesset seats, a significant decrease from its current strength of 11 MKs but enough to survive as a political force for the time being.
The question is whether the hardcore Sephardi haredi electorate will choose to pay attention to the words of Yosef from beyond the grave and abandon Shas in disgust, or remain loyal to the edicts of the figurehead rabbis who have been installed in his stead.
In all likelihood, the principles of “Da’at Torah” and “You shall do as they instruct,” interpreted in the haredi community to mean that one should listen to the advice of one’s rabbi on all life choices, are so deeply instilled in the haredi public that Shas will most probably survive the coming election, albeit with a significantly reduced Knesset representation.
The message of the Shas rabbis in the weeks to come, as dictated by Deri, will be that regardless of the content of the video, and any others that might follow it, Yosef would never have wanted his movement to be destroyed and the electorate of Sephardi haredi voters to lose its political influence.
This Theater of the Absurd orchestrated by Deri will therefore continue onward with its full cast of rabbis, politicians and assorted hangers- on playing their roles as best they can, with the media in full attendance.
Whether it is more leaked videos, outlandish rabbinic decrees, or theatrical gestures, one can be assured that the show will go on.