Will Shas, Israel’s largest ultra-Orthodox political party, survive the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Sephardic religious leader whose towering authority enabled him to found the party and unite its followers behind his will?
Some political analysts are casting their glances backward in looking for clues — specifically, to the 1994 death of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
There are certain similarities between Shas and Chabad-Lubavitch, the most important of which are their common emphasis on religious outreach and the giant stature of their respective leaders. Both leaders died without anointing a successor.
But each leader had very different relationships with his respective followers. Schneerson’s were clearly defined: They were Lubavitchers who dress like Lubavitchers; pray like Lubavitchers, using a unique liturgy; name their children like Lubavitchers and send those children to Lubavitch schools. None of this changed when they lost their rebbe.
Yosef led immigrants from various countries, who revered him deeply and without reservation. But their commitment to Shas was looser and less disciplined. His following has always been less united and more fluid than Lubavitch’s, with people taking a far less all-or-nothing approach to commitment. Shas is also a younger movement that Lubavitch, and it relies not only on communal politics but also on electoral politics, a famously unpredictable realm in Israel.
Furthermore, while Yosef left no spiritual heir, he left behind him two rival political claimants. Many commentators believe that Eli Yishai, Shas’s chairman until last year, and Aryeh Deri, Shas’s current political head, will tear apart the party. As the party’s undisputed spiritual leader Yosef kept the peace between the two men while he lived. But the tug of war between them may end up dividing the party.
According to Benjamin Brown, a Shas expert from Hebrew University, their conflicts will leave the party “split and weakened.” After a split, even if both parts retain everyone who voted for the united party, each would have only around 5% of the Knesset’s seats — too few to have the kind of power-brokering clout that Shas achieved under Yosef.
Brown believes that Shas as a political entity is on the way down. “It’s an organization, not an idea or a doctrine, and his political legacy will fade away,” he said of Yosef.
What will endure, Brown believes, will be Yosef’s religious legacy, namely a tradition of lenient halachic rulings and his religious outreach movement. He thinks that the status of Mizrahim — Jews from Eastern backgrounds — will continue to improve, but that those Jews will no longer needs Shas. “After this empowerment has been achieved, the question is whether the endurance of this political entity reflects a real need,” Brown said.