Monday, July 19, 2010

The rise and fall of a Jerusalem party called Shas

Shas leader Eli Yishai, and (in the background) Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Ariel Jerozolimski)

Interesting piece by Peggy Cidor in the Jerusalem Post tracing the rise, from its local Jerusalem roots, and fall, of the orthodox Sephardi party Shas. The Shasniks distinguished themselves in local politics as pragmatists and gentle persuaders, but since the departure of Aryeh Deri, jailed for corruption, have retreated into quiescence, notably over the recent haredi school crisis. Perhaps Deri will lead a comeback.

The phenomenon called Shas could not have been born anywhere else but in Jerusalem. Here was the most natural soil for it: Sephardi Jews from all over the world, most of them modest people who kept their traditions alive. They were close to the Ashkenazi haredim, studied at their institutions, yet suffered from disdain and experienced the pain of seeing their traditions disregarded. What’s more, all the great rabbis of this community were here, especially Ovadia Yosef. Shas had to be created here.”

“They [the members of Shas] all had great respect for Teddy Kollek,” adds Mar-Haim. “But the most important thing was that we could really rely on them. They would never use threats as a weapon, never set fire in the streets to obtain what they wanted.

They always used the technique of persuasion, negotiations. It was a real change compared to what we had to face with the Ashkenazi haredim. I think what characterized them most was their commitment to their communities – hesed, support, community interests. They were very much aware of the situation of their peers, tried very hard to bring some relief, some improvement, especially in the education issues.

“If today, somehow, there is still an understanding that the north of the city will largely be in haredi hands and the southern part will stay open, secular and pluralistic – well, that is an achievement we should thank Shas for. They were always realistic, pragmatic. I think they were good partners.

If they had been in charge of things here, many things would look much calmer and less radical today.”

As for the changes that have led to Shas’s decline, Mar-Haim believes it is a general process – as with the Likud, which has always been a local strong movement and has only one representative on the city council (Elisha Peleg), and what happened with Labor, whose representative Hilik Bar is a member of Barkat’s party.

According to Arye Dayan, a journalist who wrote a book about Shas, the trend is not surprising. “The fact that Shas was created first on the local level doesn’t mean it had to stay there. I believe that the decline of Shas is more representative of the decline of all the political parties in Israel today,” he says.

He adds that in his view, the party had roughly three stages. “First as a group created to take care of the Sephardi interests within the Ashkenazi hegemony; then the period of Aryeh Deri, who led a bold struggle against that hegemony; and now, again, at least for the moment, back to the basics of the first period,” he says.

“Then it is clear why the leaders of Shas, in front of the Ashkenazi rabbis and leadership and with the High Court of Justice in the background, couldn’t do anything but remain silent in the Emmanuel case and dare not openly criticize the discrimination against the Sephardi girls,” he continues, referring to the recent struggle against the segregation of Sephardi girls in the Beit Ya’acov school there.

When all is said and done, the consensus is that if and when Aryeh Deri decides to make a comeback, everything will change. “Those who gave in and left, and those who lost hope will all come back and restore Shas to its former splendor,” say many Shasniks, including at least one MK who prefers to remain silent for the moment.

Read article in full

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