The Past, Present and Future of Shas

Shas, the Sephardi Ultra-Orthodox party, has been part of Israel’s ruling coalition since 1984. What’s been the secret of their success, and what does their future hold?

For most non-religious Israelis, unless they identify as ‘right-wing’, Shas (an acronym for Shisha Sidrei Mishnah—the Six Books of the Mishnah) is an Ultra-Orthodox political party led by Aryeh Deri, a rabbi and a politician with a tainted past, who holds nothing sacred save two things: securing and retaining ministerial office, and his fierce attachment to current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Shas is also recognized in everyday life as the political voice of the religious Israeli-Jewish communities which originated in North Africa and the Middle East (usually described as Mizrahi), and a wing of political Ultra-Orthodoxy.

In this view Shas offers nothing new to the secular intelligentsia’s time-honoured narrative of Israel’s political culture, and in parallel reinforces lingering stereotypes about the country’s Mizrahim, who today account for about half the country’s Jewish population.

But if one goes back 30 years, a more interesting story emerges, revealing much about the social changes that have taken place in Israel since the 1977 election and Menachem Begin’s Ha’Ma’pacha (“Revolution”), which ended nearly 30 years of rule by the Labour Zionist movement.

The first leaders of Shas were observant Jews of North African origin, studying and teaching at Ashkenazi-dominated yeshivas in Jerusalem. First blessed, and then later guided by Ovadia Yosef, then Sephardi Chief Rabbi (1973-83), the activists were motivated by three aspects of contemporary Mizrahi experience: the contemptuous treatment meted out to them by the Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox in yeshiva society; their socio-economic exclusion; and the denigration of their North African and Middle Eastern culture by the Ashkenazi establishment. Campaigning in the Mizrahi, mainly North African, communities of the outlying “development towns”— characterized by little development and many social problems—they found a responsive audience. While the prevailing culture of Mizrahim (as Shasniks have frequently told us), built to absorb the flow of Mizrahi migration of the late 1940s and early 1950s, is not strictly observant, it nevertheless holds both rabbinic and parental authority in great respect.

Over the course of Shas’s rise in the 1990s, Ovadia Yosef and the young Deri operated to good effect in complementary roles—the one with his religious charisma, the other as a fiery orator and political operative. Indeed, they benefited from the tacit support of Lithuanian leader Rav Elazar Schach, entrenched in his war against the Hasidic political class. Deri led the party to a series of local, then national electoral triumphs; deft political manoeuvring (some describe these in far less complimentary terms) gave them key roles in the government. They persuaded the government to fund Shas’s own school network, an alternative to the Ashkenazi Haredi system; at its height, it had an enrolment of 60,000 children. Benefiting from the late-1990s experiment with direct prime ministerial elections, Shas reached its peak of 17 (out of 120) Knesset members in 1999.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, together with related organizations like Rav Elbaz’s Eitz Chaim network of schools and yeshivas, Shas began to target Mizrahi ba’alei t’shuva (secular Jews who have become religiously observant); informal study centres (kollelim), convened in ad hoc premises like building site caravans and other temporary premises, fuelling enthusiasm for t’shuva (conversion). Ovadia Yosef’s initial objective—described at length in journalist Avishai Ben-Chaim’s book—was to run a major t’shuva campaign; his ultimate goal, as encapsulated by the campaign’s slogan Atara leYoshna (“To Revive the Crown of Old”), was to revive Sephardi traditions—but at the same time, paradoxically, because the study method was so foreign to the Sephardi traditions they were also trying to revive, to attract a new generation to Lithuanian-style Torah study (Yosef was also trained in this method). His project was ambitious: to steer Israel toward a religious culture transcending the Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide, and away from the secular modernism of political Zionism. The leverage for the project was there, given his enormous prestige as a scholar of halacha, who dared to make innovative rulings and whose scholarly and legal prestige bridged the historical divide.

In their book A Flock with No Shepherd: Shas Leadership the Day after Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Yair Ettinger (a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America) and Nissim Leon (a professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Bar Ilan University), document the deflation of this revolutionary enchantment in the wake of Rav Ovadia’s death in 2013—specifically, the institutionalization of Shas as just another faction in the world of Ultra-Orthodox politics, accompanied by the loss of the flexibility and spontaneity that had characterized the movement’s early years. Deri’s conviction in 2000, for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, also contributed to this process. Politics always involves rewarding one’s supporters and sympathizers—appointments to positions of influence, easing the path to a seat in the legislature, and so on. There’s nothing unusual about this save that in this case, Deri received a personal financial cut as well as the political dividend. The result was a three-year prison sentence (of which he served two), followed by a seven-year ban from public office.

On his return to political life, he was confronted by a less pliable voter base. Shas had become a victim of one of its successes; the movement’s years of triumph had relied upon the enthusiasm of t’shuva, but also encouraged an aspiration for Mizrahi social ascension. The school network Shas established, together with the leverage afforded them by its representation in governing coalitions, was directed towards helping potential public officials acquire the higher education diplomas that would qualify them for positions in public service—and ultimately lift them into Israel’s middle class. Nissim Leon’s more specialized sociological research details this emergence of a diverse Mizrahi middle class. Only a minority of this group, it would seem, ever voted for Shas, which at its peak in 1999 received 14% of the vote. Rather, this new Mizrahi middle class seems to have gravitated to Likud— the secular-oriented and Ashkenazi-dominated, Labor party was of course not a popular option.

Shas’ constituency has benefited from the freewheeling co-optative habits of the Israeli political system and the capacity of the country’s institutions (the IDF, the education system, the proliferating private colleges, the innumerable synagogues, the steadily-growing economy, the settlements) to absorb Jewish groups initially consigned to the periphery by the Ashkenazi political establishment. Whilst this has—obviously—not worked for all, the growing Mizrahi middle class has indeed gained in visibility and influence, across both the social and political spheres. One notable example is Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party. While it does not explicitly identify as Mizrahi, it does project a Mizrahi image, mainly through the worldly success of Kahlon himself and many of the other figures on his electoral list, although Kahlon’s recent reunification with Likud does shows the limits of the autonomy of their political base.

Despite its unexpectedly stable performances in the two 2019 elections, outside the Knesset, Shas runs the risk of being “left with the left behind.” Its school network now seems to sustain its appeal mainly at the preschool stage. As the children grow up, their parents withdraw them from the Shas system, seeking a higher quality of education—or perhaps different social connections—in the National Religious or Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox streams. The benefits of subsidized school meals and transport, generally considered a big draw for the Shas school system in its early days, are no longer enough to retain its more discerning public—one which, incidentally, does not value the system’s emphasis on religious instruction as much as it once did. But the Ashkenazi Haredi public has continued to expand; among this population are many unencumbered by the superiority complex that may have once stopped them from sending their children to Shas schools. According to the researcher Neri Horowitz, the Shas school system has swelled over the last two years, from 36,000 to 45,000 children. Of this number, 11,000 are Ashkenazi, mainly from the Chabad, Boyan and Sanz sects. Researchers seem to interpret this is a sign of weakness on the part of Shas, as they think it shows Shas is attracting fewer Mizrahi children. However, some Shas leaders interpret this influx of Ashkenazi pupils as a sign of success: proof that they need no longer to suffer from a sense of inferiority—even if the system’s academic results are still poor.

Deri—now a conventional wheeler-dealer, but once again caught up in corruption-related legal problems—must contend with the demographic/class shift of Shas’s social base towards Likud. His solution is to cleave ever closer to Netanyahu. He tries to retain the loyalty of the potential Likudniks in his electoral base by telling them that a vote for Shas will help keep Likud in power. Immediately after the announcement of the second election of 2019, Shas declared its support for another Netanyahu government.

The Likud-inclined Mizrahi middle class do not seem particularly motivated by ethnic or cultural politics. Likud only had one Mizrahi in its first ten candidates during the first election of 2019. even though Mizrahi voters constitute the majority of the party’s supporters. It may be that they do not feel very “Mizrahi”; or, possibly, they may not nurse the presumed sense of resentment that would motivate them to demand more equitable representation in the party’s list. Yet at the same time Netanyahu himself is quick to identify with the Mizrahim whenever public figures speak of them in contemptuous terms.

One might have expected that, with these pressures, Deri would have responded positively to the offer of a joint party list with the other Haredi factions—with him at its head—in early 2019. But this merger (in all but name) would have signalled the end of Shas, and the denial of the party’s roots in fighting discrimination in the yeshiva world. In the event, although reports from the launch of the Shas campaign for the first 2019 election were not very encouraging – a half-empty room, attracting only a few Shas faithful – the outcome, which brought them eight seats, one up from the previous election, was better than expected.

Shas’s history is punctuated by hesitant shifts in the direction of tolerance and a steady erosion of the enclave walls that divide Israeli Jewish society. In some ways, Yosef was not a hardliner: he ruled that observant Sephardi women were not obliged to wear wigs, because this was not a part of their religious tradition (they could, as an alternative, wear a hairnet or snood); he supported military service for yeshiva students; he encouraged the Shas faithful to study “secular” subjects (after attaining maturity) in preparation for the workforce. But these initiatives floundered, due to the inferiority complex of the Shas leaders vis-à-vis Ashkenazi orthodoxy and learning. Because of grassroots pressure, Yosef’s frequently-cited (and somewhat surprising) support of the peace process, specifically the Oslo accords—a subject which Ben-Chaim diplomatically sidesteps (he seems to not want to remind his readers that Shas has a dovish past)-was buried in the interest of coalition government. Indeed, Eli Yishai, leader of Shas during Deri’s (enforced) time-out from politics, set aside Deri’s social welfare emphasis and any trace of Yosef’s dovishness, in favor of a very hard line on both religious and territorial matters. After losing out to Deri, Yishai tried to set up his own party but did not reach the minimum threshold to enter the Knesset.

In their heyday, Shas’s leaders and activists claimed to be leading a revolution— Ha’Ma’Pacha Shas, echoing Begin and the Likud’s 1977 “revolution.” Judging from the reactions they provoked, they were right. When Ehud Barak brought Shas into the cobbled-together coalition he headed after winning the (direct) prime-ministerial elections in 1999, secular crowds outside his offices demanded “Anyone but Shas.” In the early 2000s, Tommy Lapid, head of the secular-liberal Shinui (“Change”) party said things about Mizrahim and Haredim which in some countries would merit prosecution for racial incitement. What had Shas done to deserve such hostility? The answer can be found in the social, ethnic and anti-religious character of the crowds—and of course, Deri’s (and others’) corruption scandal, which provided a useful cover for less moralistic hostility. But the Shas faithful saw it differently. For them, and for Yosef, Deri’s corruption trial was a result of the bias of the “secular Ashkenazi elite”. When Deri was sent, after his conviction, to the Maasiyahu Prison near Ramle in 2000, a chaotic protest commune sprouted outside until it was eventually called off by Yosef.

But there are two sides to the coin. As if to confirm Mizrahi resentment, it has been our experience that, on learning that we were conducting research into the Shas, for people to often respond with patronizing and stereotypical remarks. An example: Some years ago, when one of the authors presented a paper at the quasi-academic International Conference of Jewish Studies, at the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University, audience members responded to the presentation with statements like “I know all about mizrahim, my maid is one.”

The origins of Shas also constitute the subject-matter of the feel-good drama The Unorthodox, directed by Eliran Malka (the creator of the TV series Shababnikim, which explores the world of marginalized Ultra-Orthodox youth) and chosen to open the 2018 Jerusalem Film Festival. It was an odd choice, out of sync with the festival’s tradition of supporting innovative and iconoclastic work. However, the festival’s precarious finances may have influenced this selection for the gala opening event, given that it typically attracts a wider public audience, together with representatives of the political class (Miri Regev, Israel’s current Minister of Culture and of Mizrahi origins herself, was booed at the 2017 opening. By all accounts, she revelled in the hostility.) Depicting Shas’s beginnings in 1980s Jerusalem, The Unorthodox offered a mix of schmaltz, fun and excitement—caricatured portraits of a Beit Yaakov head teacher and other Ashkenazi figures complemented by cheeky and streetwise Mizrahim. The film describes how discrimination against Sephardi girls in the Beit Yaakov schools triggered the protests which eventually led to the founding of the movement – and the marginalization of the original street-wise protesters in favour of a more politically connected leadership. Three decades on, however, and despite the growing Mizrahi middle class, the haredi world still harbours prejudice against Mizrahim. Even though many Sephardi girls do attend Beit Yaakov, other Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox schools explicitly exclude them, apparently impervious to the outrage that this provokes. The most notorious incident was in the West Bank settlement of Emanuel, where a strict separation was imposed between Ashkenazi and Sephardi girls. In June 2010, a reported 100,000 (this may be an exaggeration) people demonstrated in Jerusalem, demanding the “right” to educate their children separately from Sephardi children. The protest seems to have succeeded: the then deputy Minister of Education, Ya’akov Magri, failed in his attempt to stop the practice, even though it had been pronounced illegal by the Supreme Court.

Seen in a broader perspective however, the gradual improvement in the educational attainment of Israeli Mizrahim has had a positive effect on relations between Mizrahim and Askenazim in contemporary Israel even if broader socioeconomic and geographical factors, which separate social classes into different regions limit the extent of integration. Prejudice in the Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox world regarding “mixed marriages” has somewhat weakened among those with a more secular—worldly, one might say—education., neighbourhoods and schools, and sensitivities still linger they can express themselves in surprising ways Recently, students at the Beit Midrash Elyon yeshiva in Bnei Brak were—to their surprise—given instructions on how to a prominent Sephardi Rabbi: how to speak, sing, dance, and ask questions. It transpired that the yeshiva had been offered a $200,000 donation on condition that it received the rabbi in a manner suited to his traditions and status.

There are now seminaries for Sephardi girls from observant families, where they can study Torah—something denied to them in the past—and vocational subjects. They can take advantage of new opportunities in private colleges, which have developed distinct “streams” for Ultra-Orthodox, secular, and Arab students. On the one hand, this opens up opportunities; but it also perpetuates enclaves. There is also, apparently, some sympathy for Sephardi claims for (informal) affirmative action—opening the way for them to become judges in the Rabbinate’s judicial system, for example.

Unlike the Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox, citizens of the religious Mizrahi world now attend college, gaining the skills and qualifications—and perhaps, too, the style of speaking—that secure positions in the government bureaucracy, and from where they can promote their community’s interests. Those with a religious motivation learn Torah during the day, then go to night school to study programming, business, or accounting.

Rachamim Arbel, of Petah Tikva epitomizes this change. We first met him in 2001, whilst writing our book Remaking Israeli Judaism: The Challenge of Shas. Today, he is as active and committed to the cause as he was then (and, indeed, does not look a day older). Arbel is proud of the movement’s record of religious commitment and social mobility. A community organizer and former local politician, he has an office in a community centre (funded by the municipality). Next door a modern three-storey facility with brightly coloured outside walls, hosts a kindergarten, space for Torah study, a synagogue, basketball, table tennis table, and a library. The atmosphere is observant but not devout.

The t’shuva “business” is not what it used to be. In the early days, brigades of young missionaries engaged with people personally. Today, it is more media-driven. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the message was sent out on the radio, largely via clandestine and unlicensed stations. Now, television programs like Hidabrut (“Dialogue”)—also available on the internet—shows the range and depth of penetration of the Mizrachi/Sephardi media presence: prominent rabbis discuss Sephardi customs, answering questions from the public on subjects ranging from culinary customs to rabbinic texts. Like Shas in its early days, small groups proliferate across any number of formats, discussing matters of heritage and religious interest. Quasi-revivalist public meetings are moderated by speakers experienced in addressing secular audiences. This is done in a more sophisticated fashion than previously; pamphlets with titles like “Ask the Rabbi” provide guidance on everyday issues—it is claimed that two million copies of this title are in circulation. Such spheres of “non-synagogal” religious expression have prompted an uptick in women’s participation and leadership. Charismatic Rabaniot (usually Sephardi, and with a personal conversion story telling of their return to strict observance) command big audiences at revival meetings; women-only tours visit Uman in the Ukraine, to visit the grave of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. Twenty years ago, this scene was dominated by folkloric figures like Rabbi Amnon Yizchak (famous for his outreach activity with non-religious Jews); it was impossible to imagine women taking up such a role. In short, drawing inspiration from the energetic organizing zeal which infuses Israeli civic society, social entrepreneurship and institution-building around religion-related themes have found their way into Mizrahi popular sectors.

Ben Chaim, Ovadia Yosef’s biographer, is a true believer in the Shas revolution and its achievements. He also believes that the positive effects of Rabbi Ovadia’s charisma would have extended further, had it not been for the hostility of the Ashkenazim, the press and the media (not forgetting what he sees as the injustice of Deri’s conviction). Nonetheless, it is his opinion that by reconciling religion and society in contemporary Israel, Shas has served a historic function. His intimate knowledge of Yosef—his writings, his sermons, his personality and his archive—helps him make his case: that Shas combined a Lithuanian Ultra-Orthodoxy with the revival of Sephardi customs and popular religion (amulets and trinkets and flasks of blessed oil), and the personality cult surrounding the Kabbalist sage Yitzhak Kaduri (1898-2006), who complemented Yosef’s Talmudic credentials. This otherwise unorthodox mélange, he argues, was crucial to Shas’s success.

It could be said that Shas had a revivalist moment, both cultural and religious. During its brief period of political glory, it cleared the path for a certain stratum of people to “join the system.” Now, however, this revivalism has been diluted: the Shas schools have lost their allure, voters with a secular education have drifted to Likud, and Sephardi men who take up the life of a Torah student are likely to follow the Lithuanian way of life and learning. At the same time, Shas is a stronger presence in municipal politics than at the national level, because its people are perceived as the ones who keep in touch with the grassroots, able to understand their everyday problems. It is this closeness to the grassroots that still sets Shas apart from other parties.

But the title of the Leon-Ettinger book may turn out to have lost its force as Deri has consolidated his position in government and as the socio-political jigsaw puzzle of party and factional loyalties and power niches has slowly been unpicked and then pieces together. In April 2019 Shas gained one precious seat, partly thanks to Deri’s promises to Arab voters, who used to support the party quite a lot in the 1990s when as Ministry of the Interior he helped to improve their municipalities’ finances. Now, in September, it gained another, and the reason given by the party’s Secretary-General, Chaim Bitton, on Channel 13 was that its voters had ‘come home’ from the Likud and that it benefited also from some Chabad support: the ‘returnees’ were no doubt encouraged by Deri’s promise of fealty to Bibi and may also have been fuelled by the campaign’s abundant use of the figure of Ovadia Yosef, playing on the guilt of those who had ‘deserted’ Shas since his death. Bitton also claimed that they deployed 25,000 paid campaigners across the country. Now we shall see if Deri’s fealty to Bibi survives the coalition negotiations

Once upon a time, the Mizrahi presence in the public sphere was limited to popular songs. After 1971, Mizrahi exclusion was thrust into the political sphere, temporarily, by the Black Panthers, and the family of the venerated Moroccan holy man Abuhatzera (the Baba Sali). Finally,in the 1980s, came the hour of Sha with its winning formula of class and ethnic resentment and religious revival. Today Mizrahim are visible in business, cinema, theatre, poetry and literature. Spaces have been opened up on university programs, in school history books, and in the Ministry of Culture. All this has been facilitated by the Israeli institutional practice of political co-option. And yet… Even though the cultural and racial exclusions have lost their rough edges, even though marriage between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim now accounts for perhaps a third of all couples, and even though there is a much stronger Mizrahi middle class than a generation ago, Israeli society remains stratified, in many places and spheres divided into enclaves. In the spheres that require a high level of education—universities, the elite intelligence units of the Israeli Army, hi-tech industry, the legal system and the media—Mizrahim remain under-represented. The creative output of their artists and intellectuals reflects a sense of exclusion by continuing to express an undercurrent of resentment against what is portrayed as a hostile Ashkenazi establishment. This can be seen in the work of David Deri (no relation to Aryeh), the successful film director and documentary maker. His feature-length The Ancestral Sin, adapted from the television series of the same name, won the International Critics’ Prize at Docaviv (the Tel Aviv Documentary Festival) in 2017. The film (its Hebrew title is Sallah Po Ze Eretz Yisrael: Sallah—Here is the Land of Israel) is an unrelenting denunciation of the rough treatment meted out to Deri’s family and fellow immigrants to Israel, and their difficult lives in the development town of Yeruham, where they were dispatched when they got off the boat from Morocco. One sees that the theme of Mizrahi exclusion—which Shas worked hard to force onto public and political agendas—continues to be the subject of public debate and, in some senses, of political manipulation.

None of this is good for what in Israel passes for “the left.” As in many other countries, the left behind, and those who believe they have been left behind, find a political home at the other end of the political spectrum.

*Avishai Ben Chaim, Maran Rabbi Ovadia Yosef: A Leader Between Halakha and Kabbalah, Politics and Mystics, Jerusalem: Carmel, 2018 (Hebrew).

*Yair Ettinger/Nissim Leon, A Flock with No Shepherd: Shas Leadership the Day After Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Israel Democracy Institute, 2018 (Hebrew). 

*The Unorthodox (“Ha-bilti Rishmiyim”), Dir. Eliran Malka, 2018, 92 minutes.

*The Ancestral Sin (“Sallah – Po Ze Eretz Yisrael”), Dir. David Deri, 2017, 109 minutes.

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