Shas, the Sephardic Orthodox Israeli political party founded by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is experiencing what looks increasingly like an internal power struggle. The rebels represent something that most people didn’t even know existed: the party’s progressive wing.
Shas was launched in 1984 by Yosef and his protégé, Aryeh Deri. The platform included strict Orthodoxy coupled with Sephardic ethic pride, along with a progressive economic agenda, described in the party’s platform as “social democratic,” aimed at the party’s mostly working class base. It also had a foreign policy based on Yosef’s endorsement of trading land for peace. In 1999, however, Deri was sentenced to three years in prison for taking bribes. In his place as party chief (and interior minister) Yosef appointed the hawkish, deeply conservative Eli Yishai, who has steered the party ever further to the right in the past decade. Yishai is now commonly referred to as the most right-wing member of the Netanyahu cabinet.
Yosef, now 90, has been more hesitant about territorial compromise in recent years, but ordered Yishai to accept last spring’s settlement construction freeze despite Yishai’s objections. He has also balanced the hawkish Yishai against the more dovish and economically progressive Ariel Attias, housing minister and party No. 2, while visibly appearing to lean toward Yishai. Yosef’s image has suffered from his verbal outbursts against Palestinians, giving him a reputation as an opponent of the peace process despite his support for it and deepening the alienation between Shas and the left.
Yishai is now under siege, badly weakened by the scandal that erupted after the Carmel forest fires exposed the neglect of the country’s fire-fighting apparatus, which is under his ministry. Yishai claims he is being made a scapegoat, a victim of anti-Haredi bigotry. But that’s only part of his trouble. Reports have been rife for months that Deri, having completed the seven-year ban from public life that followed his release from prison in 2003, is now angling to return to the party leadership. He doesn’t deny the reports. Increasingly in recent days, the unrest within the party ranks is being linked to Deri.
The rebellion began in early November 2010 as a quixotic one-man act of bravado by a Shas Knesset backbencher, Rabbi Chaim Amsellem. Defying the entire religious-political establishment, Amsellem endorsed a Knesset bill to extend daylight savings time into late October, like most of the industrialized world. Israel now ends daylight savings time before Yom Kippur, in order to move up the hour of sundown, when the fast can broken, easing the strain on observant Israelis at considerable cost to the nation in energy consumption.
Amsellem’s daylight-savings rebellion was part of a full-bore assault against Orthodox political efforts that he says are unnecessarily strict and cause unnecessary resentment and hostility toward religion among non-observant Israelis. He has come out strongly against the Haredi rabbinate’s refusal to recognize conversions to Judaism conducted with relative leniency by the military rabbinate. Most controversially, he opposes the Treasury’s proposed five-year extension of stipends for yeshiva students, which permit thousands of adult men to study Talmud full-time, exempting them from military service and removing them more or less permanently from the workforce—and condemning them and their families to poverty. He calls for yeshiva exemptions and stipends to be limited to a few outstanding students, while all other Haredi men would be required to serve in the military and then work for a living.
The Shas party leadership expelled Amsellem from its ranks in mid-November and demanded that he resign from the Knesset so his seat can be taken by another party member. He has refused, even in the face of rabbinic orders of ostracism verging on excommunication.
Amsellem’s rebellion remained a one-man crusade until December 20, when the party’s number two, Housing Minister Ariel Attias, spoke out at a Shas Knesset caucus meeting against the hard-line positions that he said were souring the public on the party. He said the party was doing the work of the smaller, Ashkenazic Haredi party, United Torah Judaism, which has no cabinet ministers of its to speak for it, at the expense of the traditional Shas agenda of family support, improved daycare and health care, subsidized housing and stronger welfare. As reported on the Yediot website Ynet.co.il, he said: “We in Shas are waging battles over conversion, army deferments, income guarantees, even the Barzilai Hospital [where Haredim disrupted plans for a bomb-proof emergency room that they said would disturb ancient graves], without waging a single major social struggle alongside these issues. We have become more Haredi than the Haredim.”
Attias’s broadside prompted accusations that he was out to undermine Yishai as party leader. The following day, December 21, he denied the charges, saying he was merely speaking about issues, not personalities
On the same day that Attias was issuing his denials, however, the depth of party tensions came to the surface when, according to a December 23 Ynet report, Rabbi Yosef’s son, Rabbi David Yosef, reportedly a close associate of Deri, was forcefully barred by the senior Yosef’s aides from entering his father’s study to greet him during morning prayers. Some party insiders are now saying that Yishai’s partisans intend to do to Attias and the younger Yosef what they did to Amsellem — expulsion and virtual excommunication — making the likelihood of an open power struggle between Yishai and Deri almost inevitable.
Before entering prison Deri was a close friend and ally of Haim Ramon, who was then the leader of the dovish Young Turks in the Labor Party. The party served in coalitions with both Likud and Labor, including Yitzhak Rabin’s government in 1992 and Ehud Barak’s government in 1999. Under Deri in 1993, Shas abstained on the Oslo Accords, allowing the accords to pass and keeping the government alive and earning Deri the abiding enmity of the right. After Deri went to prison in late 1999, Shas under Yishai quit the Barak government in 2000 to protest the Camp David summit.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).