In 1982, Rabbi Nissim Ze’ev of Jerusalem wanted to register his daughter at an Ashkenazi seminar for girls. He applied to a prestigious girls-only ultra-Orthodox middle school but was turned down. Ze’ev was taken by surprise. At the time, he was already considered a well-known figure within ultra-Orthodox circles, having served as a rabbi both in Mexico and New York. He then realized that the problem stemmed from his family’s Mizrahi origins; he was born in Jerusalem to parents who emigrated from Arab countries. And so, Ze’ev decided to create a school in which girls from Mizrahi families would be accepted. When he tried to raise money from the Jerusalem municipality, a bureaucrat informed him that without political power, his efforts were doomed to fail. But Ze’ev was not deterred, deciding to do exactly that — create a political powerhouse, and that was how the Shas Party was founded 36 years ago. Shas is an ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi party that represents traditional and ultra-Orthodox Jews from Arab lands and was founded for one main reason: to fight against Ashkenazi (of European origin) ultra-Orthodox discrimination against the very community it is supposed to represent.
At first, Shas entered municipal politics, scoring four seats at the Jerusalem municipal council. Then it went on to run in the national election for the 11th Knesset in 1984, where it garnered four Knesset seats. Shas has been present since then at every electoral campaign, reaching at its height 17 Knesset mandates in the 1999 general elections. It has been a dominant political power ever since its establishment, and it has been part of most coalitions, including the present one.
Has Shas succeeded in its mission? “We haven’t made as much as a meter of progress since the founding of Shas,” Shas Knesset member Ya’akov Margi told Al-Monitor, admitting failure. Margi, who is the chairman of the Knesset’s Education Committee, was talking on the backdrop of an investigative report on television that found that ultra-Orthodox yeshivas still discriminate on the basis of community and origin.
In fact, on July 8, the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation Kan TV aired an investigative report that found prestigious ultra-Orthodox yeshivas tailed young students who applied for acceptance, kept them on various lists and even added disparaging terms beside their names. One such term was “Frenck,” a derogatory Yiddish word used in ultra-Orthodox society to describe Jews from Arab countries. In some cases, the boys’ parents were told that their sons would be permitted to study in an Ashkenazi yeshiva provided they paid an acceptance fee amounting to tens of thousands of shekels.
Israel’s ultra-Orthodox educational system is largely independent. In other words, it is managed by the heads of the yeshivas themselves with almost no government supervision, even though the rabbinical colleges receive partial funding from the state. Young Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox men study in yeshivas controlled by the Ashkenazi Lithuanian stream of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. They were accepted by these yeshivas due to a dearth of other ultra-Orthodox frameworks for conservative Mizrahi Jews, but even then the acceptance process was incomplete. A study conducted by the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research describes the situation as follows: “Stereotypical patterns of behavior accompanied by prejudices led to the ethnic segregation of Mizrahim and Ashkenazim.” The study further claims that the Mizrahi yeshiva students were pushed to the margins of the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva circles.
According to its platform, the goals of Shas are to ensure that there is no discrimination between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews and to “restore the crown to its former glory,” i.e., to restore conservative Mizrahi Judaism to the forefront of the Jewish world. In fact, it seems as if Shas’ struggle against discrimination and racism has been an abysmal failure. Today, 36 years after its founding, the main criterion for students’ acceptance in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas is still their origin.
Haim is a yeshiva student of Mizrahi origin who was accepted by one Ashkenazi yeshiva after being turned down by another. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he told Al-Monitor, “The phenomenon exists in all Ashkenazi yeshivas, though it may be less apparent in yeshivas affiliated with the Chabad Hasidic movement, which is friendliest to the Mizrahim. In the other places, we are untouchable because of our origins. Just as some things are untouchable because they are deemed disgusting, Mizrahim are untouchable because of their origins. This is mainly evident when it comes to marriages, acceptance to rabbinical colleges or the influence range of [our] rabbis — in these cases we are untouchable.”
Margi blames ultra-Orthodox society, accusing it of allowing this phenomenon to continue. He said that ultra-Orthodox society must engage in serious soul-searching because racism and discrimination are the main reason so many ultra-Orthodox youths are abandoning religious frameworks. He then called on young people to avoid studying at those yeshivas that have discriminatory policies because they are "rotten to the core and teach racism and condescension.”
Rabbi Mordechai Blau, one of the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi education system leaders, responded to the investigative report by saying that some yeshivas are more prestigious than others. As he put it, “There is Cambridge, and then there is The Hebrew University.”
A Knesset member from Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party Yahadut HaTorah told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the phenomenon was marginal, and the problem was not the level of learning shown by the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox students, but the fact that they have a slightly different mentality. The heads of the yeshivas worry that the Mizrahi are frequently subject to external influences, which accounts for why so few of them are accepted.
Remarkably, one of these concerns was explained by Knesset member Yisrael Eichler of Yahadut HaTorah. He also used the term “Frenck” in a conversation with members of his own community, saying, “There are, after all, a lot of Frencks who serve in the army because of the quotas and because, unfortunately, they are lax [in their observance]. There are a lot of them like that.” In his remarks, Eichler expressed the predominant view among ultra-Orthodox society that the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox are less conservative and more easily influenced by the outside world. Still, his words generated harsh reactions and he was blamed for using racist terms.
In response, Shas leader and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri told Al-Monitor that he is well aware of this “painful problem,” and as chairman of Shas and a government minister, he works night and day to eradicate it. One way to do this, he added, would be to establish educational institutions of the highest level for ultra-Orthodox Mizrahim.
There are two reasons why his proposed solution is a problem in itself. The first is that given the dearth of enough institutions of this kind, many Mizrahi students will continue to turn to Ashkenazi institutions as an alternative. The second is that establishing such institutions formalizes separation on the basis of origins, or in other words, ethnic segregation — a phenomenon that still seems completely natural in ultra-Orthodox society.
As for Margi, in response to the question as to whether Shas’ failure to resolve this issue would indicate that the party is no longer needed, he said, “On the contrary. We are succeeding in a Sisyphean struggle to find solutions for so many students year after year, as well as in our fights over matters of principle. On the other hand, meaningful change in ultra-Orthodox society must come from within. The responsibility to ensure that this happens lies with its leaders.”
Still, the refusal by many ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi leaders to react to the TV report indicates that they are unlikely to champion a battle against separation and ethnical discrimination in ultra-Orthodox schools. In addition, latest polls indicate that the Shas Party is declining, and it is not even sure that it will have enough support in the next elections to pass the Knesset threshold, reflecting public opinion that Shas has indeed failed in its principal mission.