Shas tries to get back on its feet

Hundreds of thousands attended Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s funeral nearly a year ago, but how is his politics faring without his leadership?

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Shas chairman Aryeh Deri speaks during a press conference with the ultra-Orthodox media in Jerusalem on September 15, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
Shas chairman Aryeh Deri speaks during a press conference with the ultra-Orthodox media in Jerusalem on September 15, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

It’s been a busy month for Shas chairman Aryeh Deri. In Petah Tikva, Ramat Gan, Bnei Brak, Jerusalem and elsewhere, Deri has stood on stages, alongside rabbis and party MKs, before crowds of hundreds and thousands of supporters.

One year ago, on October 7, 2013, the party’s founder, spiritual guide and cultural hero Rabbi Ovadia Yosef passed away. His funeral, which attracted between 300,000 and 800,000 participants – the gap in estimates signals the unprecedented scale – was the largest in Israel’s history.

Now, at the end of the traditional Jewish year of mourning, the party is riven in a contest between two leaders and two rabbinic authorities – Deri and the party’s Council of Torah Sages on the one hand, and former party leader Eli Yishai and his patron, former chief rabbi Shlomo Amar, on the other.

The Deri-organized events to commemorate Yosef’s passing are meant as a show of force, an effort to rally the party faithful and consolidate his control.

At the largest event, which took place in Jerusalem last week and drew over 10,000 male participants at the Arena stadium in the city’s south and thousands more at a parallel women’s event, Yishai was not allowed to speak from the stage and Amar was not even invited.

Thousands gather in memory of the spiritual leader of Israel's ultra-Orthodox Shas party Rabbi Ovadia Yosef at the arena in Jerusalem, on September 28 ,2014 (photo: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90 )
Thousands gather in memory of the spiritual leader of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Shas party Rabbi Ovadia Yosef at the arena in Jerusalem, on September 28 ,2014 (photo: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90 )

Deri is right to worry. Polls show his party facing an electoral decline. After the passing of the charismatic Yosef, the party’s stable showing of 11 Knesset seats over the past decade has dropped in every poll in recent months to between seven and nine – and, of course, could drop further still.

The polls reflect a question on the minds of many Israelis: What is Shas without Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the maran, the master?

The master

In 1970, the year when the 50-year-old Yosef won Israel’s highest civilian honor, the Israel Prize, for his contributions to “religious literature,” he was a man at war.

He had been appointed the Sephardi (Eastern Jewish) chief rabbi of Tel Aviv the year before, alongside his Ashkenazi (European Jewish) counterpart Shlomo Goren. Yosef spent much of their shared term (both also became chief rabbis of Israel in 1973) resenting and resisting the dominance of Ashkenazi religious practice in the State of Israel.

Twenty years before, in 1951, at the tender age of 30, he had penned a ruling as a rabbinic judge in Petah Tikvah that permitted yibum, the Biblical law of “levirate marriage,” according to which the brother of a husband who died without children was obligated to wed the man’s wife in order to enable her to have children. Yosef’s decision ran counter to the explicit edict of the Ashkenazi-controlled chief rabbinate which had restricted the practice.

This theme, the restoration of the downtrodden Sephardi community through the elevation of its religious and political life, was Yosef’s life work.

His rulings were often remarkable in their leniency, a feature of the Sephardi Jewish legal tradition, and were characterized by a rare concern he gave to the needs of the people who would be affected by them. As chief rabbi, Yosef permitted marriage between Jews and Karaites, an ancient Jewish sect that lived alongside many Muslim-world Jewish communities but did not accept the authority of the Talmud; he delivered the historic ruling that accepted the Jewishness of the Beta Yisrael Jews of Ethiopia and launched the massive Israeli operation to bring them home; and, in an act that would likely not be possible today, he freed the agunot (wives whose husbands had not granted them a divorce, and so could not remarry) of the MIAs from the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

His was a combative spirit backed by a rare genius. As early as 1937, at the age of 18, he drew harsh rebukes from prominent rabbis in the Sephardi communities in Jerusalem for lessons he taught on Jewish law that brazenly contradicted respected authorities and sought to offer more lenient interpretations. And in recent years, while in his 80s and 90s, his strident and often derisive political rhetoric led to excoriation in the media and even, in cases where he wished death for certain Israeli political figures he disagreed with, to preliminary police investigations for incitement.

Through it all, Yosef’s brilliance and provocative spirit were the driving force for the coalescing of a new identity among Israel’s Eastern Jews, who felt, rightly, that they had been marginalized by the Jewish state.

In 1953, Yosef founded his first of many yeshivas, or religious academies, focused on Sephardi religious law and tradition and explicitly committed to the production of a new Sephardi religiosity and identity.

Three decades later, shortly after leaving the chief rabbinate, Yosef, already known to his followers by the honorific Maran, began to reap the fruits of these long efforts, founding the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

In part, and in keeping with Yosef’s years of struggles with the Ashkenazi religious elite, Shas was a rebellion against the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel party, where Sephardim struggled to attain positions of influence.

But it soon became something far more important – and far larger – growing from a devoted base of Yosef’s followers, who delivered just four Knesset seats in the 1984 elections, to a formidable political force that drew 17 seats in 1999, attracting hundreds of thousands of disaffected Sephardi voters with a message of renewed dignity and increased social spending.

Finding the bottom

What is Shas without Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the maran, the master?

Shas officials do not doubt that their electoral power drew from the influence and love felt by large swaths of the Israeli Sephardi population for Yosef.

Unlike the Ashkenazi party United Torah Judaism, which could only attract five seats in 1999, and now polls at a mere seven – that is, it only draws voters who come from the narrow religious community it represents – Yosef was a beacon for Sephardim from across the spectrum of religious observance.

The 1999 zenith of 17 seats revealed how much admiration Yosef attracted in the Israeli body politic. During that election voters were allowed to choose a prime minister separately from a Knesset party. Voters who had in the past voted Likud or Labor based on their views on the peace process now could use that ballot for prime minister and use the second vote to express other social or political identities. Many used the chance to give electoral expression to their Sephardi identity, or simply their respect for Yosef.

The two-ballot system was instituted after the 1992 elections, when Shas drew just six seats. By 1996, it had risen to 10 and by 1999 to 17. When the two-ballot system was abolished after the 2001 prime ministerial election, the party fell back to 11 seats in 2003 and has remained at that level ever since, winning 12 in 2006 and 11 in both 2009 and 2013.

The party now faces the stark prospect of a further decline. Yosef is gone and the Sephardi masses seem to have melted away.

Yet it is far too soon to eulogize Israel’s largest ultra-Orthodox party. Amid the decline are signs of strength and electoral durability.

A late-September poll in Globes showed Shas drawing nine seats, with the as-yet undeclared party of Israel’s most popular Sephardi politician, former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, winning six. That very week, an Israel Hayom poll also showed Shas at nine, with Kahlon doing better at 10.

But two other polls in recent months are instructive, because they show Shas’s prospects without offering respondents the option of Kahlon – yet showed the same figures for Shas. The two polls, both conducted for the Knesset Channel on September 11 and October 2, showed Shas at seven seats, even when a prominent competitor for the Sephardi vote was not a factor.

This surprising result – that Shas does not gain or lose votes to a popular Sephardi alternative – has two dramatic implications for the party.

The first is bad news for the party: Sephardim are not as likely as in the past to vote for Sephardim simply because they are Sephardim.

The second, though, is a good sign: Shas had four seats at its founding, and grew by drawing votes from non-ultra-Orthodox voters. Having lost Yosef, the party seems to be losing non-ultra-Orthodox Sephardim, and faces its steepest decline in the polls since the two-ballot system was abolished. Yet even this loss leaves it with at least seven Knesset seats – seven seats of committed ultra-Orthodox graduates of Yosef-founded schools and institutions, seven seats that mark the party’s electoral floor.

And Shas leaders, unlike their Ashkenazi counterparts at UTJ, understand the potential benefits that can be gleaned from trying to attract larger circles of voters.

Thus, for the first time in its history, as first reported last month in Haaretz, the party has hired a public relations firm to conduct focus groups among its supporters, both ultra-Orthodox and otherwise. It appears to be asking those focus groups the right questions: should the party focus on its religious agenda, or on a more popular economic one? Should it shift to the right on security and peace issues, as it did under Yishai, or retain its traditional centrism as a party that once combined hawkish sensibilities with support for the Oslo peace process? What messages most resonate with voters it might have some chance of attracting?

In the years leading up to Yosef’s death, when he was already in his late 80s and early 90s, the party invested in its municipal infrastructure and began to think seriously about fundraising among Jews outside Israel, a process that led to its joining the World Zionist Organization in 2010 and the establishment of an American Friends of Shas in New York in 2011.

In domestic politics, the stark question “Is Shas lost?” has been a recurring theme of the past month.

The answer, Shas believes, is a resounding no. The party is here to stay. The real question, which looms large over the rallies and gatherings this month in memory of the leader who held a larger place in Israeli public life than his party ever could, is whether Shas can ever again represent something more than a narrow, isolated sector of the electorate.

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