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!
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • 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.