Israel's Shas, Right-Wing Kingmaker Party, Takes Sharp Turn to Left

New Tremor Could Shake Up Netanyahu Coalition

Return to Throne: Arye Deri, a shrewd political operator, has a plan to get the Sephardic Shas Party back from the political wilderness: he’s pushing the party to the left.
getty images
Return to Throne: Arye Deri, a shrewd political operator, has a plan to get the Sephardic Shas Party back from the political wilderness: he’s pushing the party to the left.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published May 16, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Barely four months after the political earthquake of the January 22 Knesset elections, Israeli politics are about to undergo another seismic shift. This one will bring less drama, but it just might have a deeper impact on the system.

The catalyst is Arye Deri, the onetime Haredi wunderkind and convicted felon, who returned on May 2 to the chairmanship of the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party that he founded years ago. Within days after his installation, Deri initiated a series of high-wire maneuvers to reposition the party, long considered a pillar of the right, as a moderate force on the center-left.

His moves aren’t subtle. On May 8, a senior Shas lawmaker close to Deri, former cabinet minister Yitzhak Cohen, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urging him to embrace the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Under Deri’s predecessor, Eli Yishai, Shas was firmly within the right-wing, pro-settlements camp. Deri is a dove.

On May 13, the party’s spiritual mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, signed an agreement to share control of the country’s Chief Rabbinate, a longtime Haredi stronghold, with theological moderates of the Religious Zionist-Modern Orthodox movement. The deal lets Shas name the candidate for Sephardic chief rabbi, while the post of Ashkenazi chief rabbi goes to a prominent religious moderate, Yaakov Ariel. Left in the cold is the Ashkenazic Haredi leadership, long the dominant force in Israeli Orthodoxy.

Later that same day, May 13, Deri himself announced an agreement, previously considered all but unthinkable, to enter a “dialogue” with the ministries of finance and education over reforms in the independent Shas school system. Finance and education are both controlled by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which vowed in its election campaign to slash funding of Haredi schools that don’t teach the government’s core curriculum — math, English and science. Deri announced that the new agreement would suspend the cuts, allowing time for a dialogue on curriculum reform.

Education Minister Shai Piron, a Lapid ally, issued his own statement shortly after Deri’s, announcing that Haredi schools would be submitting to government curriculum rules. The leading Ashkenazi Haredi rabbis had been railing against the core curriculum for months. Now the largest Haredi party was ready to adopt it. Piron called it a “historic evening.”

On the surface, Deri’s moves look like a win for Yesh Atid. They bring the largest Haredi party a big step closer toward integration within the broader Israeli society, one of Lapid’s top goals. They open the door to liberal reforms in the rabbinical establishment that controls marriage, divorce, adoption, conversion and burial — major concerns of Lapid’s secular, middle-class constituency. They bring new pressure for renewed peace talks, an overlooked Lapid campaign promise.

But the package is a mixed blessing for Lapid. Shas’s acceptance of the moderate Ariel as Ashkenazi chief rabbi shuts out an even more liberal candidate, Rabbi David Stav, who is favored by Lapid and most other secular politicians. The rabbinate deal also scuttles legislation that would have weakened Shas’s control of the 150-member Chief Rabbinical Council, which chooses the chief rabbis. The bill would create a majority for Stav by adding 50 new members, including women for the first time. Now it’s dead.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • "The first time I met Mick Jagger, I said, 'Those are the tackiest shoes I’ve ever seen.'” Jewish music journalist Lisa Robinson remembers the glory days of rock in her new book, "There Goes Gravity."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.