The lion roars again: The story of Arye Deri

Before there was Benjamin Netanyahu, there was Ayre Deri.

Interior Minister Arye Deri at a Shas campaign rally (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Interior Minister Arye Deri at a Shas campaign rally
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
He started out as a political wunderkind who shot up to power. He was a whizz in an election campaign, gaining more and more popularity for his party. But after years at the top, law enforcement began to suspect he was abusing his power to enrich himself. Then came the charges: Fraud. Breach of trust. And worst of all, bribery.
He had thousands of defenders across Israel who said the system was systemically biased against him, because of his political positions. They held rallies of support with signs that said “The nation is with you” and “He is innocent.”
This may sound just like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but it’s also the story of Interior Minister and Shas leader Arye Deri.
Deri was once the youngest minister in Israel’s history, at age 31. As interior minister in the early 1990s, he came under suspicion of illegally funneling funds to himself and to haredi institutions. By March 1999, he was convicted.
“He is innocent,” Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef said, with certainty.
If Rav Ovadia says Deri is innocent, then he is innocent, said Rabbi Shalom Cohen, then an important Shas rabbi and now the head of its Council of Torah Sages.
“He is innocent” became a pop hit recorded by ultra-Orthodox singer Benny Elbaz. He followed it up with two more: “J’accuse” and “Free Deri.”
A pop-up yeshiva called “Lion’s Roar,” a play on the name Arye, which means lion, opened up outside the Ma’asiyahu Prison. Thousands demonstrated for him and against the legal system, which many argued was systemically biased against Sephardic Jews.
There isn’t a temporary yeshiva or a pop song for Netanyahu just yet.
But Netanyahu insisted in his remarks after the indictment was announced that the legal authorities are biased against him because he is right-wing.
Dozens demonstrated in support outside the Prime Minister’s Residence after Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit announced his indictments; and for weeks now, hundreds of Netanyahu supporters have been rallying outside Mandelblit’s house in a counter-protest to the weekly anti-Netanyahu demonstrations going on there for years.
The “Lion’s Roar” yeshiva and the “He’s Innocent” song became major cultural and political touchstones 20 years ago.
Now we have a defendant who has even more supporters, and many of them are just as intense as Deri’s were, even without religious fervor behind them.
Netanyahu’s defenders have plenty of arguments for why the indictments are illegitimate, whether it’s the massive pressure put on witnesses like Nir Hefetz – who was essentially blackmailed by investigators who threatened to reveal to his family that he was having an affair – or disputing the idea that positive press coverage can be one side of a quid pro quo in a bribery case.
Unlike Deri’s case, which was about money, these are much murkier and harder for the casual observer to understand.
But the big difference here is that Netanyahu is prime minister. The potential for a political earthquake from this indictment is even greater than the one from Deri.
Admittedly, it was dampened by Netanyahu having twice failed to form a government, so the public has already used gotten used to the possibility that he might leave office soon.
But the implications of a prime minister on trial are on another scale of magnitude. These indictments make it almost impossible for a government to be formed in the coming weeks; and if somehow Netanyahu remains prime minister after a third election, his time and attention will be divided, making governing harder; and finally, the public’s trust in the legal system seems to be tanking, justifiably or not, thanks to this case.
It won’t come as a surprise if the “he’s innocent” protests intensify.
We may see the lion roar again, but this time, for Netanyahu.