In its 30 years of existence, Shas has evolved from a marginal ethnic political group to Israel’s fourth largest party in the Knesset and is today the unchallenged kingmaker of Israeli politics.
Now, Shas — or in its full name, the Sephardic Torah Guardians Movement — is attempting to establish a beachhead among American Sephardic Jews and, it hopes, replicate its success in Israel. On December 4, the group launched its United States affiliate, American Friends of Shas, based in Brooklyn. The new organization’s goals are still in flux and, while activists agree its main mission should be raising the profile of Shas in America, some are also calling for active fundraising to support the party’s operations in Israel.
Beyond these goals, the affiliate’s founders also hope to unite Sephardic American Jews under the leadership of Rabbi Ovadia Yossef, Shas’s founder and spiritual leader, who is revered as the most important rabbinic authority in the Sephardic world. American Friends of Shas activists believe that such a consolidation of leadership could help elevate the standing of Orthodox Sephardic Jews, who often feel left out of the Ashkenazi-dominated American Jewish organizational world.
“Associating with a very powerful leader and a very powerful organization can give us a sense of pride,” said Rabbi David Algaze, who chaired the founding meeting of American Friends of Shas. Rabbi Algaze added that while he did not believe there is prejudice against Sephardic Jews in the U.S., there is a “subconscious bias” that has made members of the community almost entirely absent from the Jewish communal leadership.
Calls to join the new organization were posted in recent weeks on billboards in Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn and New Jersey. The official launch took place, as first reported by the Jewish Star, a Long Island-based newspaper, with Rabbi Ovadia Yossef’s personal aide, Zvi Hakak, greeting participants on behalf of the 91-year-old sage. “The dream,” Hakak said in the meeting, “is to raise the image of Sephardic Jews.”
The group plans to incorporate as a tax-exempt charitable organization.
The driving force behind the initiative, Israeli Knesset member Nissim Zeev, was among the original founders of the Shas party in Israel.
“Our main goal was to have a channel in which Shas’s political views could be expressed in America,” Zeev told the Forward in a December 13 phone interview. “It is also very important for us to unite Sephardic communities in the U.S. around the party and around our rabbi, Ovadia Yossef.”
Shas started off in Israel as a social-issue party, focused on the needs of its key constituency — Sephardic Orthodox Israelis, many of whom were from the struggling classes in Israeli society. Shas established its own government-funded school network, which gained marked popularity in poor Sephardic towns. This, in turn, increased the party’s popular support.
The party initially held centrist views on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and supported the Oslo Accords. But Shas has since moved to the right. As a member of the ruling government coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, the party has opposed any freeze in Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank.
Rav Ovadia, as he is commonly called, the party’s founder and spiritual leader, is one of the most prolific interpreters of Halacha, or Jewish religious law. While he is considered lenient and even progressive in some of his rabbinic rulings (favoring the right of women to serve on municipal religious councils and affirming that members of the Ethiopian Beta Israel community are Jewish), he is also known for blunt and sometimes offensive attacks on political rivals and minority groups. Last year he referred to the Palestinian people as “evil” and “snakes,” and said they should “disappear from the face of the earth.” He declared that the 2005 hurricane that flooded and destroyed much of New Orleans, was “God’s punishment on George Bush” and on the city’s African American residents “because they have no God.” He also said wished for the death of civil rights activists from the Israeli left.
Shas’s U.S. affiliate is now poised to appeal to American Jews who lean politically toward Netanyahu but seek a party with a stronger religious orientation.
Still in its formative phase, American Friends of Shas has yet to establish committees or leadership. But at its founding meeting, the rabbis in attendance said they had indications of interest from Jews of Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian and Iraqi origin, as well as those from North African countries and the Caucasus. Representatives of the Iranian Jewish community seemed to be absent. One of the first to endorse the new group was Saul (Shaul) Kassin, chief rabbi of the Syrian Jewish community in New York. Kassin, 89, recently pleaded guilty to money laundering as part of a network that involved several other rabbis from athe Syrian community.
Setting up a U.S. affiliate is a common practice for Israeli political parties seeking to raise support, and donations, in America. Israeli election laws prohibit direct overseas funding for election activity, but allow other indirect types of financial support for political parties. In the U.S., tax-exempt charities are prohibited from funding any partisan political activity, domestically or abroad.
At least for now, American Friends of Shas is ambiguous about its fundraising intentions. Zeev, who is coordinating ties between the U.S. group and the Israeli party, said the U.S. group’s mission is not to raise money for Shas in Israel. Zeev said American Friends of Shas’s fundraising would be restricted to financing its own activity in the U.S.
American activists weren’t as certain.
Rabbi Algaze said the issue has yet to be discussed, but that even if funds are raised for Israel, they would be directed at Shas’s education system, not at the political apparatus.
Rabbi Hanania Elbaz, of the Avenue X Ahi-Ezer Congregation in Brooklyn and a founding member of American Friends of Shas, contradicted him. “The most important thing is to raise money,” he said. “Without money there are no elections.” Rabbi Elbaz explained that money raised in the U.S. could help Shas fare better in the next elections and “if Shas is stronger, it will be able to extract more money from the government for yeshivot.”
According to estimates, there are approximately 150,000 Sephardic Jews in the United States, including 80,000 in New York and New Jersey. For many of them, affiliation with Israel’s Shas Party via a U.S. affiliate could offer a means of direct connection to Rav Ovadia and an increased public and communal profile, thanks to the high regard in which the Shas leader is held by all Sephardic Jews.
Some of the new group’s founding activists believe that a strong U.S. Shas affiliate could eventually serve as the Sephardic Jewry’s main umbrella organization in America. Existing umbrella-type Sephardic groups, such as the American Sephardic Federation, have done little to unite Jews of Sephardic origin, said Rabbi Elbaz. “They did gurnisht mit gurnisht” he said, resorting to Yiddish to describe how existing Sephardic organizations did “nothing with nothing.”
“Every Jewish organization in America has its detractors,” responded Stanley Urman, ASF’s executive director. Urman said it would be difficult to unite Sephardic Jews because of the inherent nature of their communities to build around countries of origin.
Can the stature of Shas and Rav Ovadia overcome this nature?
“Absolutely not,” said Shelomo Alfassa, a community member and longtime advocate for Sephardic Jews. “Everyone respects and even loves Rabbi Ovadia, but not everyone likes his religious positions on many issues.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.