It was the last week of July. An air war was raging in the south. Rockets fell on Israeli towns; airstrikes lit up the Gaza sky. Thousands of young soldiers were streaming to the southern border after the cabinet ordered the army to prepare for ground operations.
The ultra-Orthodox Shas party was organizing as well, arranging a thousands-strong prayer rally at Jerusalem’s sacred Western Wall to plead for the soldiers’ safety, for victory against the Hamas enemy and for peace.
But the rally left some Shas officials enraged. Not at Hamas, or at the Israeli government’s policies in war or peace. The officials were angry that some rabbis affiliated with former party chief Eli Yishai were not personally invited to the rally.
As Sherry Rot, a Haredi reporter who writes incisively and critically about her world, reported at the time, an argument ensued within the party between Yishai’s supporters and those of current (and past) party leader Aryeh Deri, whose rabbinic patrons were all on hand at the event. In particular, Yishai’s supporters charged that former chief rabbi Shlomo Amar, a respected disciple of Shas’s founding spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, was not invited.
But Amar was no longer chief rabbi, Deri’s supporters retorted. Only rabbis occupying official posts were personally invited. And besides, they insisted, since when does someone need to be specially invited to a prayer rally at the Western Wall? And why had Amar led his own prayer rally at the holy site only days before to which many rabbis identified with Deri’s camp had not been invited?
The argument was as petty as it was instructive. The clashes between the two camps have been a constant thorn in the side of Deri’s efforts to rehabilitate the struggling party after the death of Yosef the previous year. In recent months, the two leaders have squabbled over the right of Yishai, who served for 13 years as chairman of Shas after Deri’s ignominious expulsion from politics over a bribery conviction in 1999, to put out his own press releases.
They argued over the wisdom of joining the Netanyahu government during Protective Edge (Yishai was opposed; Deri met with Netanyahu about it and seemed to favor the idea). And they argued about the makeup of the party list and control over party institutions.
Now, after months of acrimony, and with the March 17 election looming, the party is formally splitting. Yishai has registered his own party, commissioned polls showing he is likely to take a few seats with him, and begun to seek political alliances outside the Shas ranks.
The ideological divide
It would be a mistake to believe that the schism in Shas is driven entirely by personality. The egos of the two leaders may shape the way the schism expresses itself, but these are ultimately symptoms. Shas is being rent apart not merely by Yishai’s or Deri’s ambitions, but by larger, more substantive disagreements, the very disagreements that are shaping the new political architecture of the Israeli body politic writ large.
Israel’s political system is in chaos. A new order is materializing, and its shockwaves are being felt in nearly every corner of the political map. The left has returned in force as dovish Labor swells in the polls. So has the annexationist right, with a growing base of support for Jewish Home and growing power for the Likud’s right flank. And as the center shrinks, sectoral politics, too, are dramatically responding to the change. The Arab parties are uniting their squabbling lists in a bid to appeal to, and help shape, a more assertive Arab voice and identity.
For some time now, and largely hidden from view, these deep shifts in the public mood have been making themselves felt deep within the insular world of ultra-Orthodox politics.
The change is coming from the street, say Shas officials.
“A Haredi today is an accountant,” for example, not just a seminary student, a Shas Knesset official told The Times of Israel this week. “He has friends with knit kippot,” the ritual skullcap worn by more modernized Orthodox-Zionist Israelis. “And he talks to these friends about the territories [the West Bank], about right and left. It’s an important discourse, and it filters upwards.”
In a sense, the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism have represented an anomaly in Israeli politics. Their devotion to their spiritual leaders subsumed the usual divisions that define Israeli politics. In Shas, doves and hawks, economic liberals and socialists all rallied to the banner of Maran, or “master,” the honorific given to Rabbi Yosef by his followers. In Yosef’s vast shadow, Shas was more or less insulated from the left-right divide of mainstream politics.
But that doesn’t mean those divisions weren’t there. While Deri and Yishai share the party’s most prominent political agenda of ensuring continued state funding for religious education, they share little else.
Under Deri, Shas in the 1990s effectively enabled the passage of the Oslo peace program in the Knesset by refusing to vote against it. Under Yishai for much of the 2000s, the party was more comfortably ensconced on the right-wing of the Olmert and Netanyahu coalitions, railing against the African migrants “infiltrating” Israel — a popular issue on the right, which was brought to the fore by Yishai when he served as interior minister from 2009 to 2013 — and maintaining a hard, skeptical line on prospects for peace with the Palestinians.
Similarly on economic matters, it was Deri who announced this month that the party had two preconditions for joining a post-election Netanyahu coalition: a 30 percent hike in the minimum wage to 30 shekels ($7.68) an hour (up from the current NIS 23.12, or $5.92) and an 18% tax cut on price-controlled grocery goods. Yishai, in contrast, sat comfortably in the economically right-wing coalitions of Kadima and Likud and voted willingly for their privatization programs and cuts to government spending.
The very fact that the party could take such different stances under the two leaders reveals something about Ovadia Yosef’s priorities. Yosef was concerned with restoring the dignity and religious traditions of Sephardi Jewry, for too long crushed under the heel of the Ashkenazi rabbinic elite. He left questions of war, peace and economics to “the generals” and the politicians.
Now Yosef is gone. His word is no longer law, no longer sets party policy or assures its unity amid deep ideological disagreements. His priorities are receding as other impulses come to the fore.
New allies and divided rabbis
As Yishai scans the political horizon for allies that can ensure his new list passes the four-seat minimum required to enter the Knesset, it is telling that his top choice for such an alliance is the most right-wing party in the Knesset — the Tkuma party under Housing Minister Uri Ariel, which for the moment remains part of the Jewish Home list headed by Economy Minister Naftali Bennett.
(Many Knesset factions, including Meretz, the Islamic Ra’am-Ta’al and the ultra-Orthodox UTJ, are actually joint Knesset lists fielded by multiple political parties. The current Knesset has 12 parliamentary factions, but they represent at least 21 different registered political parties.)
Yishai’s efforts to unite with Ariel appear to be serious. The two have already commissioned at least two internal surveys showing a joint Ariel-Yishai ticket would garner seven Knesset seats.
And as the right-wing flank of the party seeks to unite with their non-Haredi (and even non-Sephardi) ideological kin, other members of Shas are sounding a distinctly different ambition.
In the wake of the November 18 massacre of ultra-Orthodox Jews at prayer in a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood by two Palestinian terrorists, Shas MK Yitzhak Vaknin, an Arabic-speaking former car mechanic from the Galilee, had this to say in the Knesset plenum:
“We need to think again about this whole phenomenon. Those who want to live with us in peace, we can live with them. But those who don’t, we have to live separately from each other.”
The attack struck an Ashkenazi synagogue not affiliated with Shas. But Har Nof itself is the party’s heartland, the home of many of its leaders, including Yosef until his death last year, and Yishai.
So Vaknin’s comment was not a flippant one. It was rooted in his horror at the attack. Yet his response, a call for “separation” between Israelis and Palestinians, is the agenda of the center-left.
And while the party’s two heavyweights fall apart, Sephardi religious leadership is dividing as well.
Deri and Yishai were scheduled to hold a reconciliation meeting on Sunday in Jerusalem. But on Saturday night, Shas’s Council of Torah Sages put out an unprecedented statement.
Rabbi Shimon Baadani, a member of the council, informed Deri that he was forbidden from meeting with Yishai. By order of Rabbi Shalom Cohen, who as council chairman is the direct successor to Yosef, the council alone would handle all contact with Yishai going forward.
By raising the issue from a spat between two political leaders to one that concerned the party’s religious leadership, Shas was forcing Yishai to split not merely from Deri, but from Shas’s rabbinic class, much of it appointed by Yosef himself. It was a difficult position for the erstwhile rebel.
Yishai responded with a series of swift and decisive moves. His supporters leaked to the press that he had sought the blessing of Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, a leading authority in the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox world, for the split. Shteinman is a more senior authority to Shas’s current rabbinic leadership in the eyes of much of the Haredi community – but he is nevertheless Ashkenazi.
Yishai named his new party “Maran,” explicitly identifying it with, and in honor of, the late Yosef. And Yishai’s camp continues to insist that he enjoys the support of leading Sephardi rabbis such as Meir Mazuz, who sent a letter last week to the party’s Council of Torah Sages threatening to “leave Shas” if Yishai and Deri could not work out their differences. And while he does not publicly address the conflict, former chief rabbi Shlomo Amar, too, is thought to be squarely in Yishai’s camp.
Shas will survive the current crisis. It has built up a stable base of support in the Haredi street that will see it through these uncertain times. But it won’t emerge from this period unchanged.
For long-time observers of Shas, the schism marks a strange twist of fate for a party whose founding purpose was to bolster Sephardi identity. The party’s explicitly Sephardi program has been subsumed – for Yishai by his right-wing political views, and for Deri by his left-wing economic ones.
And so even Shas, once the bastion of a narrow Haredi-centric, Sephardi-focused politics, is cleaving in two along the new fissure that increasingly defines mainstream Israeli politics, a new-old divide between left and right on generations-old questions of economic policy and, of course, what to do with the Palestinians.