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The Shas Party: Power and Politics in Modern Israel

Matthew Fieldman

Politics of Israel Term Paper

Professor: Dr. Ken Wald

Due: 4-15-98

"Shas: It’s not a platform, it’s an identity." --Shas political ad (qtd. in "Knowing Shas")

To many American Jews, Israel is considered the "Promised Land," a place guaranteed by God to the Jewish people where they can co-exist in harmony. In this near-utopian state, most Americans believe, the only threat is external—hostile Arab neighbors loom dangerously at every border. This view, however, is completely misguided, for in reality Israel is a nation torn by social divisions, blatant prejudice, and economic disparity (Hirschberg 12). One of the most recognizable gaps in Israeli society is the rift between Jews of Askenazi descent—those from Europe and the United States—and Sephardic Jews, mostly immigrants from Africa, Arab nations, and Asia. As a result of this schism, the Shas party emerged; through the power of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and the political savvy of Ariyeh Deri, Shas seeks to unify Sephardic and Haredi Jews against a society that denies them political or religious representation. Even more unprecedented than the message Shas presents—that the Israeli government is essentially a racist vehicle through which the secular Israelis and Ashkenazic Jews seek to oppress and dominate the Sephardim—is the remarkable success it has found in recent elections; in its fifteen-year history, Shas has risen from relative obscurity to holding ten Knesset seats, becoming the third-largest political party in Israel. In the words of Mordechai Bar-On, a former Meretz MK and a respected observer of sociopolitical processes, Shas is "the most interesting and most authentic phenomenon to have evolved in Israel in recent decades" (Landau, "Man at Center"). The Shas party, though plagued by legal battles and harsh criticisms, has had a significant and palpable effect on Israeli society and politics through the use of appeals to religion, capitalization on the social and ethnic divisions in Israel, its grass-roots organization known as El Ha-Ma’ayan, and shrewd political maneuvering.

Shas derives the majority of its votes from a sense of Sephardic unity that took decades to cultivate. From the late 1940’s through the early 1960’s, Israel was deluged by roughly one million Sephardi immigrants. By nearly all accounts, the precursor to the Labor Party (Mapai) completely mishandled this influx of Jews. Following a policy of placing people in strategically-important, but isolated and uncomfortable development towns, Labor caused the creation of innumerable ghettos and slums (Sedan, "Labor"). Once their dreams of living as first-class citizens were crushed, resignation and despair sank in. Ironically, the Sephardim came to Israel to fulfill their deepest religious yearning, and instead experienced their first religious breakdown. Instead of being welcomed to their homeland, Sephardim were immediately subjected to various forms of discrimination, and relegated to remote and decrepit towns bereft of opportunity.

After years of living in regions that were openly hostile to Jews—such as Iraq, Yemen, and North Africa—Sephardim developed rich customs and traditions that allowed them to survive their social oppression . Once settled in Israel, though, Sephardic Jews quickly realized that Ashkenazi institutions permeated every aspect of Israeli life. Labor officials demanded that Sephardi children attend Ashkenazi schools, where they were taught that they lived in a primitive culture and were forced adopt a new way of life (Halevi, "I’m Sorry). Centuries spent creating and maintaining a vibrant and unique Jewish culture were wasted as countless Sephardic Jews assimilated, not to a hostile Christian or Islamic society, but rather to the dominant Ashkenazi establishment. Many Sephardim (estimates range from 40 to 65 percent) chose to fight against the tide of assimilation through being more religious—sadly, they found that the only establishments for Orthodox Judaism were Ashkenazi yeshivas (Alon, "Shas calls"). Sephardim who wished to become politicians found that no party would accept them. In fact, the only option for a Sephardic Jew who envisioned a career in politics was the radical Sephardi Black Panthers, a movement started in the early 1970’s. However, it failed miserably when Gold Meir stated to the press, "I don’t like them, they are not nice" (Sedan, "Public housing"). Finally, the first legitimate Sephardic political party, Tami, faded into oblivion because it focused on secular and North African Sephardim (Landau, "Societal schisms"). Because it appealed to such a limited aspect of the Sephardi spectrum, it could not solidify a significant constituency and thus never earned a seat in an election.

Until the creation of Shas, the only political voice that the Sephardim had was in their hatred of the Labor party. Most Sephardim saw—and still see—Labor as the party that is not only dominated by Ashkenazi Jews, but responsible for destroying Sephardic tradition. To add to Sephardi mistrust and resentment, Labor has developed close ties with two controversial parties: Meretz, the left-wing, virulently secular and Ashkenazi party, and the National Religious Party (NRP), controlled by Ashkenazi Haredim . Finally, the only Sephardic Jew present in the upper echelons of the party is Shlomo Ben-Ami, a well-educated and affluent Moroccan who is commonly renounced as a "collaborator" (Halevi, "I’m Sorry).

In September 1997, Ehud Barak, Labor’s new leader and a future candidate for Prime Minister, issued a formal apology to a rally of Sephardi Jews in one of the stereotypical development towns of Netivot. In his speech, he asked forgiveness for the Labor party’s policy that caused entire families to be uprooted, tradition to be broken, and the fabric of Sephardic Jewry to be irreparably torn (Sedan "Labor"; Halevi, "I’m Sorry"). As one can see, it has taken roughly five decades for Israel to hear the voice of Sephardi Jews, but they are now recognized as a powerful constituency. Through the efforts of Tami, Shas, and the recently-emerging Kedem, Sephardi Jews have begun to see themselves as a unified people with specific concerns and demands.

In order to create a voice for themselves, Sephardim first had to break away from the Ashkenazic establishment. From the State of Israel’s inception, the most powerful Haredi party was Agudat Yisrael. Dominated by Ashkenazis, Sephardic Jews often felt that they did not receive fair representation at the party’s highest levels. In addition, Sephardic yeshivas and elementary schools received substantially less funding than their Askenazic counterparts (Willis 194). Finally, the ultimate blow to Agudat Yisrael’s Sephardic constituents came in 1983 when Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, a former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel and their de facto spiritual leader, was denied entrance into Israel’s most esteemed spiritual authority, Agudat Yisrael’s Council of Torah Sages (Halevi, "Ovadiah" 12). Yosef, enraged, convinced his followers to split away from Agudat Yisrael and form "Shas." Yosef was not alone—joining him was Rabbi Eliezer Shach, leader of the Lithuanian Yeshivot, who felt that he too had been ignored by Agudat Yisrael. In this collaboration, Shach brought many Ashkenazi Haredi voters to the aid of the fledgling party as it readied for the 1984 elections (Elazar and Sandler 111). Strikingly, Shas scored a huge victory, winning four Knesset seats and sealing its place in the Israeli political system.

Though it may seem that Shas’ creation was solely a result of political discord, the roots of the movement actually lie in the indisputable social gap between Ashkenazis and Sephardim. Unquestionably, many Askenazi Israelis have negative stereotypes of Sephardi Jewry—many see these people as "primitive" Jews, marked by their pronunciation of Hebrew’s guttural letters and strange traditions, miraculously "rescued" by Zionism . . . or as a collective of blue-collar workers perpetually struggling for survival in their crime-infested, lower-class neighborhoods ("Knowing Shas"). At one point, Ezer Weizmann appealed to Aryeh Deri that he not appeal to "the ethnic card," a move that many reporters interpreted as indicating the fear of the Ashkenazi community at the power of a united Sephardic front (Segal, "Attorney General").

In many ways, the stereotype of a Sephardic economic and social "underclass" is correct. The average salary of a Sephardic male, in comparison to an Ashkenazi male, has actually dropped from 79 percent in 1975 to 68 percent in the 1990’s (Hirschberg 18). By the early 1980’s, it was already clear that Sephardi youths were far more likely to use drugs, participate in crime, or end up in jail than their Ashkenazic counterparts (Willis 195). Many Sephardim feel that the Jewish Agency, one of the organizations charged with helping eliminate development towns, is biased towards Ashkenazic and secular Jews; in fact, Shas has publicly considered starting a rival agency to support Sephardim (Chabin). This under-representation can even be seen in the judicial system; during one Knesset debate, Shas MK Yitzhak Cohen declared:

"The percentage of Sephardim in this country is over 65 percent, and in the nature of things, they are either religious or traditional. In constrast, the judicial system is an Ashkenazi system in terms of its ethnic composition: Over 85 percent of the holders of judicial posts are Ashkenazi. They are all secular. The Supreme Court is almost entirely Ashkenazi." (Alon "Shas calls")

Perhaps the most shocking result of this discrepancy is this: campaigning on the platform that Rabbi Yosef could sympathize with Israeli Arabs because Sephardim were comparably discriminated against, persecuted, and deprived, Shas accumulated over 13,000 Arab votes (Willis 217). As one can see, the ethnic, economic, and social chasms between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewry are the basis for Shas’s revivalist message and surprising success.

The social phenomenon of Shas stretches far beyond politics, making a visible impact on Israeli religious affairs. During one rally, Aryeh Deri stated that Shas is not a political group, but rather a religious force which "brings the masses of Israel to hear the sacred words of Rav Ovadiah Yosef . . . " (Willis 202) Indeed, Shas does not restrict its rallies to political rhetoric; instead, sages lead the crowds in prayer, teach verses from Rabbinic literature, and bestow mystical blessings (Willis 209). Shas claims to have inspired innumerable ba’al teshuvim, Jews who change from a secular to ultra-Orthodox lifestyle (Landau, "Man at Center"). One important symbol of this religious phenomenon was when Ilan Elharar, a well-known defender on the Betar Jerusalem soccer team, gave up sports to enroll in an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva under the auspices of Shas (Carmel). In fact, Shas has secretly met with the Israel Football Association (IFA) to reschedule games to Friday afternoons and Saturday nights, thus eliminating the violation of Shabbat caused by such games (Bergerfreund). However, perhaps the most important religious stance that Shas has taken is on the fate of the occupied territories—Rabbi Yosef stated that the territory may be returned in order to save Jewish lives. This moderate viewpoint enhanced Shas’s standing in the eyes of many non-Haredi Jews, and attracted many votes (Willis 222). Thus, Shas not only claims that it is founded upon ultra-Orthodox Judaism, but it acts to further its practice.

By and large, Shas’s most influential branch is its El Ha-Ma’ayan organization, a countrywide school system which utilizes both State funding and party financial resources. For a fee of just 100 shekels per month, far less than any public school, Shas schools offer: a school day three hours longer than that of public school, hot lunches, transportation, and intensive schooling in the Sephardi tradition ("Knowing Shas"). Further, these schools offer tutors for Bar Mitzvahs, adult/rabbi lessons, women’s support groups, youth activities, immigrant absorption programs, and scholarships for yeshiva students (Willis 195). Shas community organizers function as surrogate social workers, mediating family disputes and finding jobs for the unemployed (Halevi and Gross). In sum, Shas attempts to permeate and benefit all aspects of Israeli life with its outreach programs and reconstructive efforts.

This grass-roots effort, both to rebuild the Sephardi community and gain support for the party, is not without its critics. Some experts warn that Shas is unwittingly perpetuating the social gap: by offering an education rich in religious doctrine, but poor in practical and necessary knowledge, Shas is creating Orthodox Sephardi Jews who have no chance in Israel’s competitive economic system (Hirschberg 16). Moderate Jews argue that Shas advocates solely ultra-Orthodox Judaism, at the expense of the Conservative and Reform movements. Volunteers solicit door-to-door for Shas’s various "return-to-religion" programs, a tactic many Jews find distasteful (Halevi and Gross). But few can argue with the movement’s success: El Ha-Ma’ayan had 107 branches in 1984, and more than doubled to 240 by 1992 (Willis 195). The government estimates that anywhere between 20,000 and 30,000 children participate in Shas’s after-school program—the vagueness of the numbers attests to the dynamic nature of the movement (Halevi and Gross). Thus, to vote for Shas is not simply to further their political agenda, but rather to support the school down the street, free health services, and the Sephardi community in general (Susser).

The net result of Shas’s penetration into all aspects of Israeli society is a political prowess overshadowed only by the Labor and Likud parties. This prowess has been carefully built through political maneuvering and strategy. Shas has steadily increased its representation in the Knesset, from 4 seats in 1984 to 10 in 1996. This is a rise from roughly 150,000 voters to 250,000 (Silver), an important statistic because it shows that, unlike other religious parties like United Torah Judaism and Tami, Shas draws votes from many non-Haredi Jews (Willis 217). More importantly, Shas is dedicated to fully representing its constituency—for instance, its four members in the 11th Knesset represented four distinct countries: Morocco, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan (Elazar and Sandler 111). As a result of its growing power in the Knesset, Shas has played a critical role in many of Israel’s political battles; for example, Alon wrote that religious parties like Shas controlled the fate of two recently-passed Basic Laws ("Justice Ministry"). Through agreements with Arab parties, Shas has exerted its influence over several important religious bills, including the infamous "Conversion Bill" (Segal, "Shas woos"). In all, Shas has proved its ability as a fundamentally-religious party not only to accumulate votes, but also to function within the Knesset as a shrewd player in the political process.

Throughout this development, Shas has been plagued by virulent criticism and poignant attacks by the secular media, non-Haredi Jews, and legal experts. The main reason for the violent backlash against Shas is the party’s unconventional and, by some accounts, illegal tactics. Currently, Shas is under investigation for blatantly violating an Israeli electoral law which forbids parties from using rabbinical blessings to win votes (Willis 210). Though not in direct violation of the law, Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri, a world-famous kabbalist, supports Shas through handing out amulets and charms inscribed with mystical sayings at party rallies; critics claim that, in order to receive one, a supporter must sign a written pledge to vote for Shas (Halevi and Gross; Willis 211).

When analyzing the Shas party, it is often difficult to discern where politics end and Judaism begins. For example, during public speeches, people touch Yosef gently then kiss their fingers, a ritual reserved only for a Torah scroll (Halevi "Ovadiah" 16). Shas political ads routinely use the traditional Jewish phrase, "Ani Ma’amin" (I believe), normally a reference to the Messiah, but adapted as a reference to the Shas platform. In another infamous ad, Rabbi Yosef used gematriyah—a sacred form of Jewish mysticism—to equate the word "Shas" with "thunder" (Ra’amim); he subsequently stated that all of Israel would hear the thunder of Shas (Willis 211). During the campaign for the 12th Knesset, Shas used an important Jewish symbol, the blowing of the Shofar, to appeal to the hearts of Jews across Israel. Though this was an effective method to appeal to Shas’s target population, many Jews were very offended and called such a tactic "propaganda" (Elazar and Sandler 115). In a political system where no separation between religion and the State exists, Shas uses Judaism to appeal to voters at every opportunity.

Although Shas’s questionable methods of winning votes remain controversial, few can deny Shas’s negative effect on religious affairs in Israel. Shas officials, who control the three crucial ministries of Religious Affairs, Labor, and the Interior, have created unprecedented problems with the Israeli Christian community. One official stated that Shas members in the government, "deliberately sabotage anything to do with Christians, whom they hate" (Halevi, "Squeezed Out" 16). Moreover, relations with the Arab community have also been strained; Rabbi Yosef sometimes refers to Arabs as "a cruel enemy" and "beasts of prey" (Halevi, "Ovadiah" 16). Another social schism caused by the Shas party occurred in May 1997, when the El Ha-Ma’ayan school system remained open on Israel’s 49th birthday. This action prevented these students from attending Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations, and "was seen in secular circles as a new and disturbing stage in religious-secular polarization" (Landau, "Societal schisms"). This leads to another important criticism: Shas has purposely caused a rift between Haredi and non-Haredi Jews. Shas MK Yigal Barzani stated publicly, "I do whatever I can against the Reform community, within the boundaries of the law" (Sugarman). To the chagrin of many Conservative and Reform Jews, Shas controls the government’s funding of religious institutions, allocating funding only to ultra-Orthodox institutions. While many attempts have been made by moderate Jews to help establish non-Haredi schools and synagogues, Shas rabbis call upon "anyone who can stop this terrible blasphemy of recognition and cooperation with the Reform and Conservative [movements]" to "do all they can to prevent this compromise" (Ilan). As a result of Shas’s fanatical and uncompromising views on religion, relations between Israel’s diverse religious groups have become cold and sometimes hostile.

Shas’s most visible conflict with the Israeli government, and perhaps the most divisive conflict of Israeli politics in the 1990’s, concerns alleged legal transgressions by the party’s leadership. These allegations are nothing new—Aryeh Deri has been investigated for channeling government funds into Shas-sponsored institutions since 1988; only recently, with the appointment of Attorney General Roni Bar-On, has the case made national headlines. Apparently, Deri struck the following deal with members of the Likud government, if not Netanyahu himself: in return for Shas’s continued support of the Likud coalition, and critical votes in support of the Hebron Accord, Bar-On would suspend or subtly terminate the ongoing investigation of Deri (Segal, "Attorney General"). Not only would this be a completely illegal undermining of the Israeli judicial system, it implicates the Netanyahu government in one of the most highly-publicized government scandals in Israeli history.

Although these charges of government corruption are very serious, far more important is the Israeli society’s reaction to it—namely, this renewed investigation has resulted in vehement calls of discrimination against the Sephardic people . The firestorm of controversy started with a Shas television commercial, which warned, "It is not a war against Deri, it is a war against you. If you are Sephardic and Jewish . . . it is against you" (Willis "Shas" 124). Shortly after Deri’s indictment, Shas organized a rally at a Jerusalem stadium consisting of some 20,000 supporters; Deri’s speech to this crowd was viewed by some analysts as a model of "calculated ethnic incitement" analogous to Hitler’s rallies at Nuremberg (Landau, "Societal schisms"). Arieh Gamliel, Shas's deputy housing minister, complained on national television, "The establishment wants to finish Shas. Every Sephardi party that has been set up has been destroyed" (Silver). During a Knesset debate, Shas MK Ravitz called MKs that supported Deri’s indictment "little Anti-Semites" (Alon, "Ravitz calls"). Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef sarcastically pointed out that, of all those politicians investigated, the only one indicted was a Frank, a disparaging term for Sephardim (Hirschberg 13). About the same time, a Shas ad threatened voters with the specter of imminent persecution: "Today you are b’nei Torah Sephardim, but tomorrow you will be frankim" (Willis 215). Through these statements, Shas has re-directed the public’s attention away from the party’s illegal maneuverings and grave misconduct, focusing instead on the government’s insidious racism and discrimination against the Sephardim as a people.

In conclusion, Shas has become an influential political and cultural force through the use of religion, political maneuvering, inspiring fear of subjugation in the Sephardic people, and its grass-roots efforts within Sephardic communities. At best, Shas’s methodology is unconventional yet poignant; at worst, it is despicable and blatantly illegal—many of these tactics, and the party’s sordid past, are currently under investigation. For years, the voice of the Sephardic community called in vain for reform and renewal. Only time—and the next election—will tell whether Shas succeeds in its mission and becomes an enduring, beneficent influence on the State of Israel. For now, though, few can deny the fact that Shas has succeeded in bringing Sephardic issues to the forefront of Israeli culture.

Works Cited

Alon, Gideon. "Justice Ministry moving to enact three new basic laws." Ha’aretz, 6 February 1998.

__. "PM and Hanegbi defend the judiciary: Sarid calls Shas attacks 'intimidation tactics.’" Ha’aretz, 5 February 1998.

__. "Shas calls courts ethnically skewed." Ha’aretz, 4 February 1998.

__. "Ravitz calls opposition MKs ‘little anti-Semites." Ha’aretz, 29 January 1998.

Bergerfreund, Doron. "No more Shabbat soccer?" Ha’aretz, 6 February 1998.

Carmel, Reba. "JERUSALEM SKETCH: Aryeh Deri's supporters claim that he is a sacrificial lamb, but at whose altar is he being sacrificed?" The Jerusalem Review, 24 April 1997.

Chabin, Michele. "Call for rival Jewish Agency lacks broad political support." Jewish Telgraphic Agency, 4 November 1997.

Halevi, Yossi Klein. "5752: The Year of Ovadiah." The Jerusalem Report. 8 October 1992.

Halevi, Yossi Klein. "I’m Sorry." The Jerusalem Report. 30 October 1997.

Halevi, Yossi Klein. "Squeezed Out." The Jerusalem Report. Vol. 5 No. 6. 10 July 1996.

Halevi, Yossi Klein and Netty Gross, "Religious Revival." The Jerusalem Report.

Vol. 5 No. 6. 10 July 1996.

Hirschberg, Peter. "The Ethnic Underclass." The Jerusalem Report. 12 June 1997.

Ilan, Shahar. "Rabbis launch fresh attack on progressives." Ha’aretz. 27 January 1998.

"Knowing Shas." Behind the News Archive. Http://www.virtual.co.il

Landau, David. Behind the News Archive. "Man at Center of Bar-On Affair Plays Key Role in Policy Making." Virtual Jerusalem Web Page. Http://www.virtual.co.il

Landau, David. "Societal schisms mute rejoicing as Israel marks its 49th birthday." The Jerusalem Report. 13 May 1997.

Sedan, Gil. "Labor party head apologizes for handling of Sephardi Jews." The Jerusalem Report. 29 September 1997.

Sedan, Gil. "Public housing issue ignites new movement for Sephardim." The Jerusalem Report. 10 July 1997.

Segal, Naomi. "Shas woos Arab legislators to vote for conversion bill." Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 4 January 1997.

__. "Attorney general rejects claims that bias entered Bar-On affair." Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 24 April 1997.

Sharkansky, Ira. Policy Making in Israel. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1997.

Silver, Eric. "Persecution Complex." The Jerusalem Report. Vol. VII, No. 19: 15 May 1997.

Sugarman, Margo Lipschitz. "Mevasseret Reform Jews Protest Shas ‘Incitement’ Against Them." 2 October 1997.

Susser, Leslie. "The Great Sephardi Hope." The Jerusalem Report. 18 September 1997.

Who’s the Boss in Israel: Israel at the Polls, 1988-89. Elazar, Daniel and Shmuel Sandler, Ed. Detroit: Wayne Stae Univ. Press, 1992.

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__. "Shas—The Sephardic Torah Guardians: Religious ‘Movement’ and Political

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