Shabbat with Arye Deri

If his performance with students at a recent shabbaton is any indication, the political wunderkind’s rehabilitation in public eye is already under way.

Arye Deri 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Arye Deri 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The press has been awash with speculation the past few weeks that Arye Deri, one-time interior minister, former head of the religious Sephardi party Shas, and one of the most simultaneously loved and hated figures in the country – and indeed the larger Jewish world – is planning to launch a new “big-tent” religious party. A Deri-led party with Sephardi and Ashkenazi support, which would also seek to attract support from secular Israelis charmed by his rather idiosyncratic approach to political and social questions, could cause a major political realignment.
Deri’s return has been a long time coming. He was released from a three-year jail sentence on corruption charges in 2002. But upon his release, he was banned from all political activity, only recently emerging from this period of “shame.”
But the legend of his political skill and capacity for intrigue remained strong, and it was widely expected that politics had not yet seen the last of him. On Sunday night, Deri gave an interview to Channel 10 on his future plans.
I SAW Deri at one of his first public appearances since news broke of his renewed political intentions, and it’s not hard to see what the fuss is about. The venue was a shabbaton in the Old City of Jerusalem put on by the educational organization Nefesh Yehudi, which seeks to “deepen the Jewish identity” of university students. Many haredi notables from the music and media world were guest speakers, but Deri’s Oneg Shabbat “question and answer” session with the students was clearly intended to be the coup de grace.
Deri took the floor later than I expected – around 11 p.m. While now portly, and with often exaggerated, lumbering motions, he nonetheless met questions with articulate, sharp responses. Anyone who has attended a question and answer session (especially with Israeli students) knows that they can get hostile. Deri was able, better than any other politician I have seen, to neutralize his questioners without resorting to shouting, usually getting by on the yeshiva student-style rapid shake of the head and a quick twitch of the fingers.
Why doesn’t the haredi community serve in the army, attend university, get professions or, most broadly, integrate into Israeli life? There were many other questions for Deri, but this one, repeated in many different forms, was the most urgent. Deri’s best response was in the form of a perhaps mythical story: “After the war, the learning of Torah was in danger of disappearing from the face of the Earth,” he said. “There was a decision made by the community to devote itself totally to the learning of Torah – man’s highest mission.”
But there now must be a recognition, Deri said, that times have changed and that the original mission of saving the Torah has been largely fulfilled; now is the time for greater integration. “I can say without hesitation,” he said, “that if a young man will not learn Torah he should serve in the army – it will make him a man, teach him how to get up in the morning.”
Those who believe that the haredi welfare state has the same bad effects as welfare states everywhere should also pay attention to his very politique epilogue, however: “In a Jewish state, those who truly and thoroughly devote themselves to the study of Torah should receive the state’s full support.”
This strange political two-step struck a chord with the audience, which showed its strong approval with applause. Even if Deri’s historical account of the haredi community’s universal Torah learning was a fraud, it was a harmless, perhaps even pious, one. It painted the community’s way of life in a sympathetic context, vindicating its actions while at the same time bowing to the idea of service and, one might add, to the obvious fact that while Jewish learning may be a meaningful endeavor, not every Jewish male is suited for it.
And of course, politically speaking it was a very grey response, neither for nor against either side of the debate regarding the state’s subvention of the haredim, but rather seeking a compromise between killing and expanding the haredi welfare state. All substance and very bipartisan, as they say on Capitol Hill. And very atypical in the hyper-ideological world of Israeli politics.
Pre- and post-Q&A, and for the rest of the weekend, Deri happily ate and talked with his family and others. Over his years in the political wilderness, he seems to have developed a taste for the finest kosher Bordeaux, and he took great relish in pouring wine into nearby glasses, many of which had seconds earlier been filled with orange juice or Coca-Cola. Seeing him move his portly frame around the room in a jovial manner, it was difficult for those around him not be charmed by his greeting “Hey, tzadik.”
The man, as the political scientists used to say, has charisma.
It is widely believed that Deri’s long-term rival, current Shas chairman Eli Yishai, will use all available means to stop his former colleague. He is supported by Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef, who between his two pupils seems to prefer the plodding, predictable and seemingly controllable Yishai to the irascible and wayward Deri. Also, Deri has already been in jail once. Still, he seems to have learned the Machiavellian lesson that a clever pupil just might free himself from his previous masters. If Deri’s performance with the university students is any indication, his rehabilitation in the public eye is already under way.
Coming soon to a wedding, bar mitzva or union meeting near you.
The writer is a PhD candidate in the faculty of history, University of Cambridge.