Israel Pulse

The rise and fall of Israel's ultra-Orthodox party

Article Summary
Under the renewed leadership of Aryeh Deri, the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party has abandoned its roots and is now facing its demise.

In the summer of 2011, ultra-Orthodox politician Aryeh Deri stirred up a media storm when he announced his plans to return to politics with a new party.

His home party, Shas, was still considered a stable and important part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's second government. At the time, the party was controlled by its spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and his protege and confidant Eli Yishai. There was no question that Yishai was on solid ground. But Deri worked overtime in an effort to reconcile with Yosef. His goal was to return to the party's leadership, which he headed until 1999. Back then, he was forced to leave following his conviction for corruption, including charges of bribery and fraud.

Attempting to apply pressure on the aging rabbi, Deri threatened to form a new party. He began with secret briefings to the press, but soon followed these up with public statements. "I am back, and I want to use my political strength for the sake of unity and public responsibility. … This will not be a sectoral party like Shas," said Deri. It was the same Deri who was a bold and powerful rising political star in the 1980s, respected for maintaining excellent relationships with secular politicians.

There was already plenty of buzz around Deri, but as the 2013 election approached, he intensified his threats to create a rival party. He spoke often about a modern social party to unite the nation. It would include religious, secular and Arab members, as well as representatives of the military. He even hinted that he would be happy to include a woman in his list. Journalists bought it, particularly secular journalists, because Deri was thought to hold moderate diplomatic views. He was perceived as being relatively liberal among the ultra-Orthodox political leadership.

The tactic worked. Yosef restored Deri to the Shas Party leadership. At first, Deri worked alongside Yishai, but then Yosef deposed Yishai in favor of Deri. In retrospect, the story of Deri's return to Shas is also the story of the party's decline from the proud party formed by the Yosef in the mid-1980s. Back then, it was a religious, ultra-Orthodox social party, intended to provide a home for the Mizrahi (Jews of Middle Eastern origins) electorate and to "restore the community to its former glory."

Nothing is left of that vibrant, trailblazing party. Under Deri, Shas became even more religious until it was little more than a satellite of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties. Today, it is a benighted and unenlightened party, which has lost its way and is losing voters, too.

The demise of the old Shas became apparent to everyone this week, after the rabbinic leadership forced Knesset member Yigal Guetta to resign Sept. 13, because he had attended the wedding of his gay nephew two years earlier. It marked the end of the tolerant and accepting party, whose voters, mostly traditional Mizrahi Jews, shared the burden of serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) — unlike many ultra-Orthodox men.

Nothing is left of that vibrant, trailblazing party. … Today, it is a benighted and unenlightened party.

In an interview with Army Radio, Guetta spoke about his secular daughter, who is a singer, and the wedding of his gay nephew Yam. Guetta attended the wedding with his wife and children, even though according to his personal worldview, it was an abomination, forbidden by the Torah.

Yam is the son of Guetta's beloved sister Suzy, a member of Kibbutz Ginosar. In the interview, Guetta spoke about how close he was to his sister and her family. It was a moving radio moment, full of love and a commitment to unity. Guetta said: "The whole family went to the wedding. … We all went, and we celebrated with him."

The interview led to a witch hunt in Shas. The party's rabbinic leadership demanded that Guetta apologize for attending the wedding, or alternately, that he resign from the Knesset. Pressure on him increased daily. Even the fact that he is considered very close to Deri and a popular figure in Shas did not help.

Instead of receiving Deri's backing, Guetta was left to fend for himself. Unable to withstand the pressure, he finally announced his resignation. Deri, who maintains highhanded control of the Shas Council of Torah Sages, used his inner circle to argue on his behalf that he was unable to convince the rabbis to act any differently. It was an especially cynical pretense of innocence.

It was not too long ago that Deri would jump at the opportunity to declare his openness and commitment to unity. Now he is leading Shas toward the most benighted period in its history. It is now a party that incites hatred and has become a forum for prejudice. While it is true that Guetta himself once said that gay people are "sick," he could perhaps be forgiven for this since his actions proved that he was bigger than that. He showed a commitment to others that transcended his belief system. While Deri never used such harsh rhetoric, by abandoning Guetta he revealed to everyone how phony he is. He also proved that Shas is in a dismal state.

In the last 2015 election, Deri tried to increase Shas' strength through his "transparent people" campaign, targeting the poor, the weak and Mizrahim. He went back to using his Moroccan surname Makhlouf and spoke about ethnic discrimination. This brought him to the finish line with seven seats, a far cry from the glory days of Shas, which had a record 17 seats at its height in the 1999 elections, while maintaining a steady 11-12 seats for years after that.

Guetta is part of the original Shas Party DNA. He was born in peripheral Kiryat Shmona to a large family from Tripoli that experienced ethnic discrimination. He served in the IDF and has an academic background. This was precisely the electorate that Yosef was targeting when he attempted to restore the pride and independence of the ultra-Orthodox Mizrahim in the face of discrimination by the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox leadership.

Shas was the face of the ethnic revolution in Israel. The party created a language and culture of its own and became home to many Mizrahi Jews. For several years, they abandoned the Likud and found their home in Shas.

The most recent polls from July and August show a party in sharp decline, with some polls even suggesting that Shas will not pass the electoral threshold in the next election. It is now thought that its more traditional voters are returning to the Likud, leaving just the party's hardcore ultra-Orthodox supporters.

Meanwhile, having returned to serve as interior minister, Deri is once again entangled in criminal investigations. He is an unpopular figure within his party, yet he manages to intimidate its Knesset members. His main focus is maintaining his power. While the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties are able to maintain a stable leadership and electorate, Shas is in a state of decline under his leadership. It does not have the same political clout that it had in the past and has lost its central role in Israel politics.

Deri was the political architect of Shas' glory days, when it controlled 17 seats. Now, some two decades later, he may be the person who brings Shas to its ultimate demise.

Found in: Political scandal

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3


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