The Shas Enigma

Shas has stopped competing for the non-haredi Sephardi vote.

Shas (do not publish again) (photo credit: Flash 90)
Shas (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Flash 90)
THE MODEST JERUSALEM home of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, former chief rabbi and ever-present spiritual leader of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party, has played host to many strange political scenes over the years. But it had never witnessed anything quite as bizarre as the festive late June event marking the culmination of a recent episode of discrimination against Sephardi girls at an ultra-Orthodox school in the West Bank city of Emmanuel.
On the afternoon of June 27, some 200 singing and dancing Ashkenazi haredim, members of the Slonim hasidic sect responsible for the Emmanuel school segregation (precisely the kind of discrimination against Sephardim which Shas was ostensibly created to prevent), descended on the venerable rabbi’s home to pay him homage.
The scene was not only unprecedented – Ashkenazi hasidim deferring to a Sephardi rabbi – it seemed to defy any rational political logic.
Shas was founded some 30 years before as a Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party. But on that afternoon, the Slonim hasidim led by Rabbi Shmuel Borozovski, who had ordered his followers not to send their daughters to school with Sephardi girls, filled the synagogue next to Yosef’s home, as representatives of the parents of the Sephardi girls they had discriminated against.
From the moment they arrived, they did not stop praising Yosef. And when Yosef himself entered the synagogue, they stood as one in his honor, singing the special songs that they usually reserve for only their own most revered rabbis. And afterwards, as Yosef gave a brief homily, they listened, transfixed – as if in the past these same men, more often than not, had not treated him with supercilious disdain.
The 33 mainly Ashkenazi guests of honor, whom the 90-year-old Yosef had made the effort to host on that hot summer day, sat in the middle of the synagogue. They were parents of children involved in the Emmanuel school affair. Only a few hours earlier, they had been released from Ma’asiyahu prison, where they had been incarcerated for defying a Supreme Court order to allow Sephardi girls at the hasidic school to sit in the same classes as their Ashkenazi daughters.
This strange event, with its confused loyalties, is symptomatic of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) politics, which has been turned on its head.
Although Shas’s initial raison d’etre was to protect the rights of the Sephardi haredim, long under the control of the then-Ashkenazi majority, it maintained a deafening silence during the entire Emmanuel affair, and, in the end, lined up with the Ashkenazi boycotters.
For once, the supporters and constituency of the United Torah Judaism Party, in which the Slonim hasidim are a major component, found themselves on top. Over the past 20 years, they had watched their tired, old-fashioned, slowmoving party trailing behind the initiatives of the younger, more dynamic Shas. But now Shas was trailing behind them – after they had brazenly discriminated against Sephardi girls.
Paying homage to Ovadia Yosef seemed a small price to pay.
THE EMMANUEL SCHOOL AFFAIR came to a head in mid-June, when the Supreme Court ordered the Ashkenazi parents to send their daughters to joint classes with Sephardi girls or go to jail. The parents chose jail. They argued that they were not against the Sephardi girls for ethnic reasons, but because their homes and lifestyles were not Orthodox enough. They pointed out that Sephardi girls from families which did conform to a hasidic lifestyle were accepted.
The hasidim tried to turn the charges of ethnic discrimination against them into a case against the secular Supreme Court for interfering in their religious way of life. The solution came with a compromise deal hammered out by Shas and Slonim politicians: with the end of the school year, the girls would all go to a joint summer school, the jailed parents would be released, and by the start of the next school year a more permanent solution would be found. The hasidim portrayed this as a great victory over the Supreme Court.
And when forced to choose between protecting Sephardim against Ashkenazi discrimination or supporting Ashkenazi haredim against the Supreme Court, Yosef chose to slam the Supreme Court. Anyone appealing to the court would have no place in the world to come, he ruled.
The key to understanding these strange developments can be found deep inside the annals of Shas’s complex history. Since its inception on the eve of the 1984 general election, the Shas story can be divided into three distinct periods, each of which is characterized by a very different relationship between Shas and the Ashkenazi haredim.
To date, three men have served as party chairman: Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz for the first four years; Aryeh Deri from 1988 to 1999, when he was removed from office following an ultimatum to Yosef from then-prime minister Ehud Barak; and Eli Yishai, the current interior minister, from 1999 to the present.
Although Yosef ostensibly controls the political moves made by the party leaders, each leader’s tenure has been marked by profound changes in Shas’s relations with the outside world, haredi and secular alike.
Until 1988, Shas was a Sephardi party controlled by Ashkenazim. The initiative for its establishment came from Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Schach, head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, the undisputed leader of the Lithuanian stream in the Ashkenazi haredi world until his death in 2001. In 1982, after a bitter internal power struggle among the Ashkenazim, Schach was expelled from the ruling “Council of Torah Sages” and was left without a political home. As the 1984 general election approached, he established Shas to maintain a degree of political power through parliamentary representation and to avenge himself against the predominant Ashkenazi Agudat Yisrael party by taking parliamentary seats from it.
At the time, Yosef, too, was looking for revenge. He wanted to assert his independence from both Agudat Yisrael and the National Religious Party, which had just sabotaged his efforts to extend his tenure as Sephardi chief rabbi.
And with this crossing of the paths of venerable rabbis, Shas was born.
Formally, Yosef was the leader. But, in fact, Schach made most of the important decisions. Three of the four members of Knesset at the time, among them Yitzhak Peretz himself, had studied at Lithuanian yeshivot and owed allegiance to Schach.
The fourth was Yaakov Yosef, Ovadia Yosef’s son, who was supposed to represent his father’s interests. But they soon quarreled and Yaakov fell out of his father’s favor. Indeed, it was Yaakov Yosef who was behind the petition to the Supreme Court that sparked the Emmanuel episode – much to his father’s chagrin.
Under Peretz, who was born in Morocco, came to Israel as a child and became a rabbi in the Lithuanian mold, Shas’s primary goal was to bring the traditional, moderately religious Sephardim closer to an ultra-Orthodox way of life. From the outset, however, the partnership between Schach and Yosef was fraught with inherent tensions, which eventually led to a split. While Peretz, acting on Schach’s behalf, attempted to increase Lithuanian influence among the Sephardim, Yosef sought to create a parallel Sephardiharedi world, separate from Schach’s.
Still, there was some common ground.
Both believed that Shas should operate primarily within the ultra-Orthodox world and not strive for dramatic changes in Israeli society as a whole.
All that changed in 1988, when Deri replaced Peretz as head of Shas. The changing of the guard, just before the national elections, was the result of the open breach between Schach and Yosef, exacerbated by Schach’s decision to establish Degel Hatorah, a new political party without Sephardim, a move seen by Yosef as a deliberate slight. Worse: The establishment of Degel Hatorah threatened Shas’s very existence.
After all, in the previous election, Shas had received much of its support from the Lithuanians.
Yosef decided to hit back hard. He ousted Peretz, whose loyalty to Schach was unshakeable, and handed over the running of Shas to Deri, while accepting his advice to fight for Shas’s life through a new form of haredi politics. Aided by his close friend, Rabbi Uri Zohar, a famous once-bohemian film director turned haredi, Deri reinvented Shas, running a dynamic campaign aimed not only at Sephardi haredim, but at all Sephardim. Instead of narrow messages about the establishment of a Sephardi world of Torah, Deri talked about discrimination against Sephardim in Israeli society as a whole and the need for a regenerative ethnic pride.
Instead of presenting Shas as a party involved only in the intricacies of the haredi world, Deri declared its intent to play an active role in all aspects of Israeli life.
As the votes were counted, it was clear that the strategy had worked: Not only did Shas survive its abandonment by Schach, it grew from four to six mandates.
In government as interior minister, Deri continued to reconfigure Shas, succeeding beyond his wildest expectations. Under his leadership, Shas morphed from a haredi party, marginal in Israeli politics, to a Sephardi party, which, although built on a haredi base, claimed to represent all Sephardim and unabashedly fought for influence on the national stage. In other words, Deri transformed Shas from a party that sought to change the haredi world to a party that sought to change Israel.
As he worked towards this goal, Deri brilliantly exploited all the weaknesses in the secular political system. In those days of intense rivalry between Likud and Labor over the heading of national unity governments, he skillfully played Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir and Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres off against each other. Then in 1996, after Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister in direct elections, Deri made Shas the new Likud leader’s most loyal partner, and he himself became Netanyahu’s right-hand man, the most influential minister in the cabinet.
Deri was even able to exploit corruption charges against him. During the protracted police investigations against him during the 1990s and the equally protracted trial that followed, Deri managed to transform his image from devious criminal to victim of political-ethnic oppression, which made him even more popular among the Sephardi community. The results were impressive: Shas attracted more and more Sephardim who until then had identified with the Likud, and in 1999, at the height of the legal proceedings against Deri, achieved its most impressive electoral result ever: 17 seats in the Knesset, only two fewer than the Likud.
All this made Deri a hero, even among the Ashkenazi haredim. Since the establishment of the State in 1948, no single haredi party had ever garnered more than six seats.
Their admiration for Deri and envy of Shas was, at least indirectly, responsible for a discernible improvement in the way in which haredi society began treating the Sephardim in its midst.
Ovadia Yosef, however, was less than pleased. Deri didn’t always involve the rabbi in the details of his strategic moves.
Moreover, in Yosef’s view, Shas had not been established to gallop towards national leadership but, rather, to create a Sephardi ultra-Orthodoxy and to represent the interests of Sephardi haredim. Yosef, who merely wanted to increase Shas’s electoral power to bolster the position of the Sephardim within the haredi community, was not out to conquer the state or gain the envy of the Ashkenazim. Deri had led him in this direction much against his will. But there was little he could do about it, given Deri’s dazzling electoral successes.
All that changed the day after the 1999 elections, when Ehud Barak, the new directly elected prime minister, made firing Deri (who was about to go to prison) a condition for Shas’s joining the coalition. Yosef seized the opportunity. He “gave in” to Barak’s ultimatum, fired Deri as head of Shas and appointed Eli Yishai in his stead.
Under Yishai, Shas has abandoned Deri’s revolutionary aspirations and has returned, with only a few necessary modifications, to Yosef’s original concept. It has stopped competing with the Likud for the non-haredi Sephardi vote and, for all practical purposes, has given up trying to change Ashkenazi and secular society. Shas is once again a haredi party, happy to limit itself to issues of concern to the haredi population.
Its political struggle is with the Ashkenaziharedi parties for position within the haredi society and it has adopted the hawkish positions of the extreme Right, which have long been part of haredi ideology.
The Emmanuel school affair posed a difficult dilemma for Shas, demanding a choice between its haredi and Sephardi allegiances. But it is doubtful whether Shas could have responded in any way other than it did.
As long as they could avoid taking a stand, Shas leaders chose to remain silent.
But the minute the internal haredi conflict went beyond the boundaries of the settlement of Emmanuel, and turned into a conflict between haredim and the secular state, Shas had no choice but to take the side of the haredim. Siding with the Sephardi petitioners to the Supreme Court against the Ashkenazi haredi establishment would have pulled the rug out from under Shas’s oldnew strategy. Had Shas taken the position of the petitioners, agreeing to impose a style of education on the haredim that contradicts the dictates of their rabbis, and doing so, no less, through the mechanism of the secular Supreme Court, it would have been acting against its own interests. Having given up on its goal of enlisting non-haredi Sephardim to change Israeli society, Shas cannot afford to allow open conflict with the Ashkenazi haredi world. To do so would be to invite a death sentence.
Shas has therefore come full circle. There is a degree of closure in the positions adopted by Ovadia Yosef and Eli Yishai throughout the Emmanuel episode, and a definitive return by Shas to the original path on which it set out back in the early 1980s.
In the final analysis, Shas under Eli Yishai chose to support the separatist hasidic educational stream and the Sephardi parents who have adopted the Ashkenazi haredi way of life and send their children to hasidic schools, rather than the general educational stream, composed largely of nonharedi Sephardim who, over the years, have become increasingly observant without fully adopting a haredi lifestyle. In other words: The Sephardi parents whose daughters were accepted in the hasidic stream are the model on which Shas’s first leader Yitzhak Peretz intended to build his party.
The Sephardi parents of children in the general stream are the people on whom Aryeh Deri wanted to base his revolution.
Ovadia Yosef made his choice years ago.