The Shas Party's changing sensitivity – analysis

Thirty-five years ago, Peretz's comments – which badly offended the sensibilities of many – did not hurt his standing in the party or the government. Gazahi's words ended his political career.

Rabbi Baruch Gazahi (photo credit: BENI TZAGAY)
Rabbi Baruch Gazahi
(photo credit: BENI TZAGAY)
In June 1985, following a tragic train-bus accident at the Habonim Junction that killed 22 people – including 19 students – on an outing from a Petah Tikva middle school, then Shas head Yitzhak Peretz ignited a firestorm of protest.
Peretz, a founder of the newly minted Shas Party who at the time was interior minister, said that the accident was the result of Shabbat desecration caused by a cinema opening on Friday night in Petah Tikva.
His words infuriated parents of the victims, who urged then prime minister Shimon Peres to fire him. They were unsuccessful, and Peretz served for another seven years in Shas, his own party, and then in United Torah Judaism as a Knesset member and minister.
Peretz’s comments received backing at the time from Shas’s spiritual mentor, Rabbi Eliezer Schach, the head of Ponevezh Yeshiva, who said Peretz was speaking as a rabbi, not a government official.
Fast forward 35 years to June 2020.
Rabbi Baruch Gazahi, a rabbi who immigrated to Israel at the age of two from Ethiopia, was No. 11 on the Shas Knesset list and – by virtue of passage of the Expanded Norwegian Law enabling ministers and deputy ministers to resign from the Knesset to make room for those next in line on party lists – was on the verge of entering the Knesset.
But on Monday night, just prior to the passage of the Expanded Norwegian Law, a video emerged of him saying during a Torah lecture he delivered four years ago that dressing immodestly was the reason women miscarry and contract breast cancer.
“A woman who was used to revealing her upper parts usually is reincarnated as a cow, whose upper parts are exposed,” Gazahi said in the class. “That is why women have to be covered up there. This is one of the reasons women suffer from breast cancer, because everyone looks at them and it causes the evil eye. It is also one of the reasons why women, God forbid, have miscarriages. They post pictures of themselves on Facebook showing their exposed stomachs.”
He was also heard on another video making derogatory comments about Arabs.
These comments caused an uproar, and Shas leader Arye Deri tweeted in response that he spoke to Gazahi, who told him that a few sentences of a two-hour lecture delivered years ago were taken out of context.
“I made clear to him that these remarks are unacceptable and do not represent Shas,” Deri wrote.
On Tuesday, Gazahi quit the Shas list.
Granted, Gazahi has nowhere near the standing nationally or in the party that Peretz had in 1985. But the different way Shas reacted then and now shows the road it, and by extension parts of haredi society, have traveled over the last 35 years.
Thirty-five years ago, Peretz’s comments – which badly offended the sensibilities of many – did not hurt his standing in the party or the government. Gazahi’s words ended his political career.
What this indicates is that Shas – contrary to popular perception – does care about its image, is attuned to the sensitivities of the public, is not willing to close itself up in its own community and say that what the general society thinks about it or its leaders is unimportant. Gazahi’s stepping down shows there is receptiveness in the party to what the non-haredi public thinks.
Much is often written about how haredim cut themselves off from the general society, content to live behind the walls of their own segregated communities.
When the coronavirus hit hard in March, there was widespread criticism of haredim for ignoring the directives of the state, with one respected journalist declaring that the haredim have to do some serious soul-searching and that the relationship between the state and the ultra-Orthodox community has to change because the haredim essentially don’t care what the state or its representatives say.
Deri’s reactions to Gazahi’s comments show that they do care.
In the 35 years since Peretz made his comments about the bus accident, there has been a steady integration of haredim in Israeli society. Far more haredim work, serve in the army and study in higher educational frameworks than ever before. Though far from full integration, this has led to more exposure of haredim to the general population, bringing with it an increased awareness of their sensitivities.
One place where this has been seen in recent years is in the growing participation of haredim in various ceremonies marking Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars, as well as editorials in the haredi press calling on the ultra-Orthodox public to stand as a sign of respect during the siren sounded on that day.
This sensitivity to the feelings of the general public was also evident in the way Deri and Shas handled Gazahi’s comments this week, a far cry from what happened a generation ago.