Last week Tuesday, I had the opportunity to speak with the spokesman for a government minister and high ranking member of Shas. The party won 11 seats in Knesset in the 2009 Israeli election and sits in the governing coalition with Likud making it the fifth largest party in Knesset and the fourth largest in the governing coalition.
Representing the Sephardi haredim (ultraorthodox), the current head of the party is Eli Yishai who serves as Minister of the Interior. Also in the cabinet are Ariel Atias, Housing Minister, Yitzchak Cohen, Deputy Finance Minister, Ya’akov Margi, Religion Minister, and minister without portfolio, Meshulam Nahari. Since its founding in 1984, Shas has served as a powerful and popular voice for Sephardim and Mizrahim. For Sephardi haredim, Shas filled a niche which was poorly filled by the then- singular Ashkenazi haredi party, Agudat Yisrael. Although it has been argued that Shas was engineered by the leadership of Agudat Yisrael to capture and control the Sephardi Haredi vote, Shas quickly broke ranks and has become considerably more powerful than its mother party.
Although Shas is undoubtedly a haredi party, most of its support is actually drawn from modern orthodox and traditional Sephardi voters. Such broad-based support contrasts sharply with the haredi-only constituency served by the joint Ashkenazi list, United Torah Judaism, of Agudat Yisrael and Degel HaTorah. Shas also enjoys considerable support from Israel’s Druze community who see it as a promoter of authentic Middle Eastern culture.
The party’s spiritual leader and, in effect, final arbiter of party policy is Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who served as Israel’s Chief Sephardi Rabbi from 1973 until 1983. Widely regarded among Sephardi Jewry as “the most important living halachic authority,” R’Yosef has been outspoken in his efforts to advance the once politically and socially marginalized non-Ashkenazi communities in Israel, an advocate for equitable treatment of Israeli Arabs, a supporter of division of the Land of Israel if it can bring peace, and a harsh critic of Palestinian terrorism (and some have claimed Palestinians altogether).
As the “real” head of Shas, R’Yosef wields incredible power in the Israeli political arena. In a recent editorial in Yediot Ahronot, he was described as Israel’s number one politician, a man without whose blessing a final status agreement with the Palestinians cannot be reached. This is hardly surprising given the high level of respect enjoyed by the Rav in both the religious and traditional communities, and by the fact that Sephardim and Mizrahim make up just over half of Israeli Jewry. The recent defection of former Shas MK Haim Amsalem, who claims that the 90-year-old R’Yosef is being influenced behind the scenes by Eli Yishai, has brought to light some divisions within the party. However it is far too early to judge what effect this relatively minor split will have on the party or the non-Ashkenazi vote.
In terms of the specifics of my conversation, I particularly pressed my host on the question of whether Shas considers itself to be a “Zionist” political party. The haredi community in Israel is by no means entirely unified on this front, however traditionally the ultraorthodox have been seen as unsympathetic to the notion of a “Jewish state” controlled by secular authorities. While rarely actively opposing the state, with the exception of the fringe groups like the Neturei Karta, most haredim do not serve in the military, prefer community courts to the national judicial system, and some avoid public displays of loyalty to the state like singing the national anthem, reciting prayers for the well-being of the state, or commemorating national secular holidays.
He insisted that Shas is indeed a Zionist party. It believes that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people and the state is important to securing that right. Their final authority comes from the Torah and is guided in significant party by R’Yosef’s interpretations and halakhic rulings. Yet, my host believes that Israel is really a “State of the Jews,” rather than a “Jewish State.” While the latter is the ideal, one which follows the Torah, in which its citizens respect the Shabbat, adhere to the Torah, and love the land, “this is not the state today.”
Shas’ primary interests, he insists, are on ensuring that the Sephardi haredi community is adequately represented, that their schools are funded, and that equal opportunities are open to them. However, one cannot be a major player in Israeli politics without taking positions on issues of security, territorial concessions, or intercommunal relations.
In terms of territorial compromise, R’Yosef has been a supporter of the idea of withdrawal when such moves can realistically lead to peace. His public expression of this view has varied depending largely on the security environment. Vocal in his support for compromise following the Olso Accords, he retracted these claims in the wake of the second intifada. While a vocal critic of the 2005 Gaza Disengagement, believing unilateral moves would not be beneficial to Israel’s security, he also refused to support a national referendum on the issue.
The Rav’s approach has become incredibly pivotal to the current government discussion about a new building freeze in the West Bank. In late August, he unequivocally stated that a new freeze was “forbidden” and that "[we] must build in all [parts of] the land." Yet Eli Yishai has recently indicated a willingness to accept a temporary freeze on the condition that it receive written assurances from the United States that it would not demand another freeze, that it would not apply to Jerusalem, and that the government will approve dozens of units in the West Bank once the freeze expires. As of now, the matter remains undecided with the US yet to give firm reassurances and with both Likud and Shas ministers unwilling to cede ground on continued building in Jerusalem.
Moreover, while R’Yosef and therefore the party remain open to the idea of territorial compromise, it is clear that this position does not universally apply to the whole of the land. Jerusalem, as should be obvious from the discussion above, is considered by Shas to be off the table entirely. Yet when questioning my host about those peripheral neighborhoods where Arabs constitute a solid majority, he suggested that these could be abandoned by Israel in a peace deal. Pressing further, he asserted that Jerusalem must be considered differently from the rest of the land as one of the four Jewish holy cities; which also include Tzvat (Safed), Tiveria (Tiberias), and Hebron. But would Shas be willing to support a withdrawal from Hebron? To this my host replied that he really did not know. This could only be decided by R’Yosef and those are “big shoes to fill.”
Clearly Shas is not a territorial maximalist party like the right-wing religious parties of Habayit Hayehudi or Ichud Leumi. However, they are also certainly not as open to compromise as leftist parties like Meretz (whose elites incidentally have also expressed to me their understanding of the importance of Jewish claims to the whole land of Israel). Shas’ attitude toward territorial compromise seems to be guided by a careful and pragmatic combination of religious doctrine, security considerations, and a desire to placate their particular constituency. While R’Yosef certainly has a powerful hand in moulding this approach from the top-down, they are certainly sensitive to the wider political environment and the demands of their generally conservative supporters.
The most puzzling part of my discussion related to the demographic question. Asking my host what the party’s position is on this hot topic in Israeli politics, I was shocked to find that they take no position whatsoever. Not only that, but he gave me the impression that he was entirely unaware of the conversation. I am not sure if this is representative of the party as a whole, or just the particular individual with whom I was speaking, but it does demonstrate a certain alienation from the mainstream Israeli political consciousness. My host did assert, however, that it is Shas’ position that the state must not differentiate between its Jewish and Arab citizens. “We are one together,” and, as such, Shas has worked to support Arab community institutions and infrastructure.
Finally, given the deference my host expressed throughout the interview to the authority of R’Ovadia Yosef, I was compelled to ask what his position was on the idea of a theocracy in Israel. Indeed, many have made the comparison of haredi veneration of and seeming absolute loyalty toward their leading Torah scholars to the political structure of Islamic Iran. My host insisted that the Sephardim have always had a rav leading them [actually a historical oversimplification], and R’Yosef is continuing this tradition. As a wise and divinely inspired tzaddik, he does not make mistakes and his interpretations of Torah are necessarily true. “Everyone in Shas knows what the Rav decides, and this is what we do.”
However, he rejected the comparison to Iran and the power of the Ayatollahs. Although he believes Israel’s Jewish character is to be more greatly valued than its democratic one, he also noted that if Israel were a theocracy, one would not even be able to have this debate. In Iran would the public be allowed to engage in a discussion over a building freeze? Would the religious leadership be willing to engage in compromise as R’Yosef apparently is? While the supporters of Shas are bound by belief to the decisions of the Rav, such fealty does not exist among other constituencies, nor do they demand that it should. This willingness to work within the larger democratic system rather than trying to replace it fundamentally distinguish Shas from its ostensible counterparts in Iran.