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Thanks to Yosef’s stature with Mizrahim across a wide spectrum, Shas has attracted significant electoral support from non-Haredim. This has made it different from Ashkenazi Haredi parties. Yosef was able “to rise above religion to appeal to social class, ethnicity, identity and pride,” commented Guy Ben-Porat, a Ben-Gurion University political scientist who published a book on state and religion in Israel earlier this year. “I’m not sure that there is a figure who will be able to transcend religion in the way that he did.”
Haim Amsalem, a renegade Shas lawmaker who was expelled from the party and in January tried unsuccessfully to enter the Knesset on a rival list of his own, has estimated that Shas will lose 70% of its non-Haredi voters without Yosef. Ben-Porat predicts that many non-Haredi Mizrahim will turn back the clock three decades and vote as they did before Shas existed. “Many of them will return to parties like Likud, which has a very strong following ethnically [of Mizrahim],” he said.
Perhaps. But these predictions of doom recall past prognoses that Shas was on its way down, most memorably when Deri, widely regarded as a political wizard, resigned from his first stint as party leader in 1999, just ahead of his imprisonment for taking bribes.
“They have been eulogizing Shas since the movement first appeared,” said Yoav Peled, a Tel Aviv University political scientist and specialist on Shas, referring to secular Israelis. “The secular media hate Shas, so it always expects it to disappear and disintegrate.”
Erez Tzfadia, who has conducted in-depth studies of Shas’s support in Israel’s periphery, agrees. “This is more the hope of the secular anti-Mizrahi, anti-religious voices in Israel — the hope of the Ashkenazi middle class,” he said, adding, “With or without Ovadia Yosef, Shas is going to continue to be a very influential social, religious and identity project in Israel.”
In Peled’s view, social class will be the key to Shas’s continued success. “The constituency of Shas is not Mizrahi but poor Mizrahi,” he said. Alternative parties, such as Likud, have neo-liberal economic agendas that repel Shas voters, he explained. Shas, in contrast, has never wavered in its view of government as the ultimate resource for those at the bottom.
Tzfadia, who directs the department of public policy and administration at Sapir College, in southern Israel, expects Shas’s large infrastructure to keep the party strong and united. “It’s a movement with lots of institutions, including schools and synagogues, and for that reason I think that Shas will continue to hold its power,” he said. “While there may be struggles over leadership, three years from now, when there are preparations for the next election, Shas will have the power it has today.”
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org