Shas supporters lose faith

Do poor municipal election results portend a split in the party?

Shas party activists in Bnei Brak during the municipal elec (photo credit: YAACOV NAUMI / FLASH 90)
Shas party activists in Bnei Brak during the municipal elec
(photo credit: YAACOV NAUMI / FLASH 90)
Ron Shalom, 22, and his mother, 49-year-old Iris, sit in the living room of their small apartment in Talpiot, the working-class Jerusalem neighborhood in which both have lived their entire lives. The modest kitchen is decorated with a small poster featuring faces of 20th century Sephardi rabbis; on the bureau near the door sits a small photograph of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a tribute to the former chief rabbi and iconic leader of the Shas Sephardi political party who died on October 7.
It is October 22 and municipal election day in Israel, but neither Ron nor his mother voted for Shas in the Jerusalem ballot. Ron, a student at a predominantly Ashkenazi yeshiva in the ultra-Orthodox part of the Bayit Vegan neighborhood, said he didn’t know whether he would vote for a mayor at all or only for the Ashkenazi Haredi Agudat Yisrael faction for the City Council, and Iris said she planned to vote for incumbent Mayor Nir Barkat and for the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party.
In other words, in an average neighborhood that falls neatly into Shas’s target demographic – low-income, working-class, religiously observant Sephardi families – loyalty to the memory of Yosef is alive and well, but that did not seem to translate into voting for Shas, the political wing of the rabbi’s legacy. Both Iris and Ron said that some of their neighbors would vote for Shas, but not all; Iris said her late husband was a staunch Likud supporter, as were most of her neighbors and extended family.
If anything, Shas’s standing in other parts of the city seemed even shakier. Across town in another working-class Sephardi stronghold – the Mahane Yehuda market – many merchants hawked their fruit and vegetables on the backdrop of large Shas election posters picturing Yosef’s picture and the words, “We love you, Maran” (an honorific for a leading rabbi).
But here, too, not one of the approximately 15 merchants approached for this article said they planned to vote for Shas either in the municipal election or the next time national elections are held, sometime before January 2017.
Indeed, several said they had lost faith in the political system and no longer feel they had anything to vote for.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” fumed one Sephardi man who would only identify himself by his first name, Moshe. “What possible reason would I have to vote here? What’s a vote going to get me? These politicians are only out for themselves. What do you think will come out of this election? Are my taxes going to go down? The streets of this city are so filthy; I’m embarrassed to call myself a Jerusalemite.
Is that going to change? No. Whoever wins is going to do whatever he can for himself; they aren’t in politics because they want to make the city better. So [let them] leave me alone and let me get on with my work. They are all nothing more than a bunch of [garbage].”
Asked whether Shas could survive without the strong, unchallenged leadership of Yosef, Moshe spat out a guttural Arabic-language epithet and said it wouldn’t mean anything to him one way or the other. “I did vote for Shas a few times,” he said, “but that was because Maran was a special personality who really cared about us, who really looked after us. But these guys are like cats in the street, fighting over Maran’s leftovers [almost] before they’d even buried him. As far as I’m concerned, they can all go to hell.”
The results of the frustration expressed by Moshe and the Shalom family were not long in coming. As election day drew to a close, mayoral candidates supported by the party had failed to deliver in two cities with large Sephardi populations – Jerusalem and Elad – and had only narrowly defeated a secular candidate in Bet Shemesh.
The election flop seemed to confirm two troubling notions for the party – one, that many religious and traditional Sephardim had voted for Shas because of their warm feelings for Yosef, but could abandon the party without the iconic spiritual leader at the helm; and two, that the party had alienated its supporters by nominating the markedly dovish Arye Deri over the solidly right-wing Eli Yishai to head the party.
Following the election losses, party insiders said they were not concerned about the party’s future. Speaking to The Jerusalem Report, o ne f ormer p arty o fficial s ays h e was not concerned about the mayoral races because, nationwide, the party had garnered upwards of 800,000 votes.
On the other hand, the losses in Jerusalem and Elad could exacerbate tensions between Deri and former party chief Yishai, and could hasten the clashes that observers have predicted for years would accompany the death of Yosef. Even before the municipal elections, Deri and Yishai both seized the opportunity of Yosef’s passing to score political points.
Yishai was not permitted to speak at the revered rabbi’s massive funeral, and responded with a withering attack on Deri, accusing the chairman of “playing up” the rabbi’s death for media consumption.
Still, the initial clashes were not as bad – or at least, not as public – as many observers predicted during Yosef’s repeated hospital stays in recent months, and party insiders are certainly aware of the dangers inherent in an allout Yishai – Deri battle played out on the front pages of the mass circulation Hebrew dailies.
All party insiders and observers took pains to stress that the future of Shas lies in preventing such a fight.
But it is equally clear that they are not sure they believe such a battle can be prevented.
Yitzhak Sudry, a former party spokesman and the brother of Yehudit Yosef, the late rabbi’s influential daughter-in-law, acknowledges that Yishai had “good reason to feel badly about the treatment he’s received,” but his insistence that the former chairman would “never do anything to harm the party” sounded more like a desperate prayer than an actual prediction.
“I’ve known Eli for many years, and I absolutely cannot believe he would do anything to hurt Shas or to violate Maran’s will,” Sudry tells The Report. “He knew his role as party chairman was a temporary measure until Arye got out of jail, and he was 100 percent faithful to Maran. So I don’t agree with the standard media prediction that Eli could break off and splinter Shas. If anything, I’d say that suggestion is terribly unfair to Eli, after all the years of service he gave to Maran, and to this party.”
To be sure, there are grounds for concern of all-out war between Yishai and Deri, but there are also indications that such concerns may be overblown. Several outside observers believe that Deri’s position as party chief is unchallenged at the moment because he was appointed by Yosef himself, and also because he has succeeded in placing political allies in highly influential positions (such as Yosef’s sons, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, the new Sephardi Chief Rabbi and Rabbi David Yosef, the newest member of Shas’s Council of Torah Sages).
Furthermore, Shas would hardly be the first Israeli political or Jewish religious group to splinter following the death of a charismatic leader. In 1994, many observers predicted the downfall of Chabad following the death of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. A decade later, the Satmar Hasidic group did split, as the result of a public, unkind battle between Rabbis Aaron and Zalman Teitelbaum following the death of their father, Satmar Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum.
Several outside observers, such as Dr. Batia Siebzehner, co-author of the 2007 book, “Remaking Israeli Judaism: The Challenge of Shas,” tells The Report that Shas is slightly more stable than the Satmar group that eventually split, but she added that efforts to remain whole would be difficult given Yosef’s personal involvement in decision-making.
Siebzehner, a scholar at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the late rabbi was involved in nearly all decisions regarding Shas – who would run for mayor of Town X, who would be principal of High School Y, etc. She says it is not clear that the party’s leadership would be able to survive without that guiding hand (some would call it Big Brother) of Yosef’s direct involvement.
“I think it’s the mid-level leaders who pose the biggest challenge to the party right now, not Eli Yishai or Arye Deri,” Siebzehner says.
Happy times: Former Shas party head Eli Yishai and current leader Arye Deri celebrate a cooperation agreement prior to the national elections, with the blessing of their spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, at the rabbiHappy times: Former Shas party head Eli Yishai and current leader Arye Deri celebrate a cooperation agreement prior to the national elections, with the blessing of their spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, at the rabbi
“Until now they always knew where to go for support. But what happens now? Do they seek help from Deri or from Yishai? What happens if Rabbi Shalom Cohen and Rabbi Moshe Maya disagree on placing an individual in a particular position? There is nobody now with the stature to make unchallenged decisions. Add that to a culture of conflict between the various political personalities at play and you’ve got a recipe for fireworks.”
While it remains unlikely that Shas will disappear in the foreseeable future, it does appear that the party’s influence is on the decline.
As that process unfolds, there is at least one man waiting in the wings trying to pick up the pieces of a splintered party by addressing what he believes are the real needs of Israeli Sephardim – former Shas MK Haim Amsalem.
Few people arouse passionate disdain among Shas members more than Amsalem, who served as a Knesset Member from 2006 to 2010. At that time, Amsalem quit the party faction to become a renegade MK, charging Shas and Yosef of cynically talking about “Sephardi pride” while in practice encouraging a series of practices that worked against both the economic and social interests of working-class Sephardim and against the very Sephardi tradition that Shas swore to uphold.
For instance, Amsalem is highly critical of Sephardim who eschew both military service and academic studies in favor of long-term yeshiva study, and who pander to the strict Halakhic tendencies of Ashkenazi Haredim (as opposed to what Amsalem calls the “Sephardi tradition of moderation”). Amsalem subsequently formed the Am Shalem movement but failed to garner any seats in January’s Knesset elections. Today, he is focused on building the Am Shalem movement ahead of a possible return to politics in 2017 (or whenever elections are held).
“With all due respect for Rav Ovadia – and you’ve got to remember, I was very, very close to Maran for close to 40 years – he led the movement to create a type of extremism that never existed in the Sephardi world,” Amsalem asserts to The Report. “In North Africa, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Sephardi Judaism was moderate and involved with the world.
“But look what we’ve created. Since Maran created Shas, the number of Sephardi high school students who graduate has dropped.
The number of Sephardi university students and professors has dropped. Walk around any Haredi neighborhood and you’ll see thousands of yeshiva ‘students’ – young people who have told the Israel Defense Forces that ‘Torah is my profession,’ but you can see them hanging out on the streets and they never seem to get around to actually attending yeshiva classes.
“There can be no doubt that Maran was the greatest Torah scholar of our generation, and I’m very sure that when he created Shas, he honestly wanted to restore Sephardi pride. But I’m afraid he failed in his role as a leader of the Sephardi world. In reality, Rav Ovadia said he would restore Sephardi pride, but in the end it was nothing more than his unique personality that was the pride of most Sephardim,” Amsalem claims.
Ultimately, outside observers do not believe that Yishai has the political capital to mount a serious challenge to Deri’s leadership. According to Amsalem, however, Yishai has “the political senses of a hungry alley cat” and could certainly make trouble for Deri and Shas, even if he does not split the party.
This is likely to surface in light of ongoing negotiations with the Palestinians, and in light of the fact that most Shas voters are more in tune with Yishai’s solid right-wing beliefs than they are with Deri’s allegiance to Yosef’s moderation on land-for-peace issues. But to many Shas voters, the outcome of that internal issue appears to be irrelevant.
“These guys have no principles at all,” said Moshe, back at his stall in Mahane Yehuda.
“Their only guiding principle is ‘what’s good for me.’ I’m sick to death of them.””