The Shas Phenomenon

Israel’s political landscape has, over the past decade, been transmogrified by the growing strength of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party Shas (Sephardic Torah Guardians). But the conviction and recent jailing of party leader Aryeh Deri has only fortified Shas’ power among an electorate of largely disenfranchised Middle Eastern Jews; the party currently holds 17 seats in the Knesset, just behind Likud. The American Jewish community, which had not previously taken much notice of Sephardic Jewry, has been shaken by the Shas phenomenon. Last week, Hebrew Union College invited Dr. Zvi Zohar, one of Israel’s most astute observers of the socio-political scene, to give a lecture in Los Angeles on what many now perceive to be a permanent feature of Israeli politics.

A fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where he heads the Center for the Study of Halacha, Zohar has made Sephardic religious tradition a core focus of his numerous books and essays. (Hebrew Union College has tapped the scholar to consult on a new core Sephardic curriculum project, funded by a grant from the Maurice Amado Foundation, which will focus on major humanist thinkers of the classic and contemporary age.) Zohar argues that Shas is not a faithful reflection of the best this tradition has to offer.

“The leaders and hardcore cadre of Shas have very little do with Sephardi culture and tradition,” he says. “They have a strong Sephardi ethnic consciousness, but their religious culture and traditions reflect a deep assimilation into the charedi/Ashkenazi yeshiva world. That’s because of where they studied and grew up. They went to Agudath Yisrael schools and to Agudath yeshivot. However, they felt that within that world, there was ethnic discrimination against them, which led them to believe that they were never going to be able to get their fair share in that world.”

Shas was the dark horse in the 1984 elections. Led by Aryeh Deri, then a 25-year-old yeshiva graduate, under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the new party, much to its own surprise, won four seats in the Knesset. From the start, notes Zohar, the call for Torah observance and pride in Middle Eastern Jewish roots reached the ears, and hearts, of Israel’s disenfranchised: Jews who had arrived from countries like Morocco, Iraq and Yemen, and who felt unacknowledged in Israel’s history books.

“Sephardi-Oriental Jews began to feel that the reason for the cultural degradation they endured happened to them because they were not being true to their own selves and to their own traditions,” Zohar explains. “They looked to their rabbis, who continued to symbolize and embody authentic Sephardi-Oriental life as it was lived in the old country, as the natural leaders of this movement.”

Many Shas voters, however, are not Orthodox in the strange charedi-Sephardi black-hat mold that has become the Shas image to the outside. They are, instead, Middle Eastern Jews who don’t study in yeshivas, who serve in the army and work throughout Israeli society yet continue to live according to the traditional rhythms of life experienced by their parents and grandparents in North Africa and the Middle East.

Ironically, Shas was established with the patronage of Rabbi Eliezer Schach, leader of the non-Chassidic or Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox yeshiva world, and the young Aryeh Deri was something of a Schach protégé. But as Shas’ power grew, it strained their relationship. During the 1992 national elections, said Zohar, things fell apart. “At a mass rally, in the presence of Yosef, Schach said, ‘Our Sephardic brethren are not yet ready for Torah leader-ship.’ ” The remark worked to the party’s benefit, handily securing Shas six seats in the Knesset.

During a talk at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Zohar attempted to clarify many of the myths that have grown up around the Shas phenomenon. While the movement is known to be anti-Arab and anti-peace, Shas leaders have a history of pragmatism. Deri originally supported the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and Yosef established that land could be traded for peace as far back as 1980. He reiterated this position many times in intervening years and suggested that Middle Eastern Jews become leaders in the peace talks because they originate in Arab/Muslim cultures. Today, Shas commands 19 percent of the vote in the Knesset, but Zohar believes that the party does not continuously support “land for peace” trade-offs, and he says that the Shas electorate is internally conflicted on the peace process, so that there is no uniformly accepted position.
While nearly 50 percent of Israel’s population is Sephardi or Mizrahi in origin, Zohar insists that fewer than half vote for Shas. The poorer and more isolated the Sephardi voter is, said Zohar, the more likely it is he’ll vote Shas. “However, there are people of Mizrahi or Oriental descent who are prominent activists in other political groups which are not ethnically based. Moshe Katsav, the newly-elected president of Israel, is an example. He was born in Iran, is religiously observant, supports Oriental rabbis, but he belongs to the Likud party.”

Other Sephardi/Mizrahi voters in Israel support Avodah, Meretz and Likud over Shas, Zohar notes. And there are other Mizrahi movements which are secular and progressive in nature, the best-known among them being HaKeshet, the Rainbow Coalition.

What characterizes the Sephardi-Oriental religious tradition, which Zohar has been studying for the past 20 years, is an abiding humanism. Rabbis in this tradition often take the view that Torah-based Judaism is rooted in innovation and reinterpretation, rather than a fixed corpus of normative directives. From classic figures like Moses Maimonides, Judah Halevi, Moses ibn Ezra and Solomon ibn Gabirol, to modern and contemporary rabbis such as David Nieto, Elijah Benamozegh, Aharon ben Shimon, Eliyyahu Hazzan, Yitzhak Dayyan, Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uzziel and Hayyim David HaLevi, this tradition provides a method for integrating religious praxis organically with secular modern life.

The tradition of Sephardi/Mizrahi humanism unfortunately does not characterize, the Shas party leadership, which tilts toward fundamentalism. But after all, said Zohar, “The whole breakdown into Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, charedi, Reconstructionist and all of that is something, to my mind, which primarily reflects the European and North American experience, and is not the one Sephardim dealt with.

“The Sephardim have the notion that community should preempt ideology; you should not, because of your ideology and belief, break apart the unity of the community; and it’s better to have a community which is internally diverse than it is to have several communities which are internally consistent.”

During a recent class Zohar asked his students, rhetorically, what Jews gain from denominations. His answer: “Nothing. We gain that we know who not to listen to and who to despise without even hearing what they have to say.”

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