Being Sephardic I have a sense of pride when fellow Sephardim accomplish something of great importance in the Jewish world, and while I stress Jewish religious plurality and will argue those who don`t support this, I rarely stress for Jewish ethnic plurality. We`ve tried that since the foundation of Israel and what did we see? Years of discrimination till Sephardic Israeli youth formed a version of the black panthers called HaPanterim HaShchorim, who Golda Meir naively called not nice people after a meeting with their leadership.
Furthermore just like their American Black Panthers counterparts they used violence, however unlike the Americans they were able to gain political office though only one seat in the Knesset. It wasn`t the best outcome but they did demand from Jerusalem better economic and social development that had never been used or seen in Sephardic and Mizrahi neighbourhoods. This volcanic anger was even mentioned in Amos Oz`s book and one of my favourites, In the Land of Israel. Oz talked to several people throughout Israel during the 1970`s and in one of those discussions he encountered angry Sephardic Israelis who praised the 1977 stunning election victory of Likud led by Menachem Begin who they claimed was going to do much more than the Ashkenazi dominated Alignment/Labor party who had ignored them and benefited themselves via corruption scandals.
Their predictions were accurate, and under his premiership, the Begin government invested heavily in those communities and in total his social-economic plan called Project Renewal helped over 450,000 Sephardic/Mizrahi Israelis who where in dire straits.
However, Shas was different from Likud. It was formed as a counter weight to Hasidic Ashkenazi parties in the Knesset and gradually they swayed Sephardic/Mizrahi Israelis from the traditional parties and became a big-tent party bringing together highly religious Sephardim to secular ones all under the spiritual guidance of controversial leader Maran or Rav Ovadia Yosef, the man who ruled that Ethiopian Jews were one of the lost tribes and should be brought to Israel. However he was the same man who said, “The six million Holocaust victims were reincarnations of the souls of sinners, people who transgressed and did all sorts of things that should not be done. They had been reincarnated in order to atone.”
The list of his problematic comments could make the New York Times Best Sellers List in a published edition, but contrary to some, he was a great man who combined Torah and politics which led to Shas from being a small ethnic non-important party to the so-called kingmaker of Israeli politics.
As a Sephardi, this is something I hold with great pride, a party for Sephardim to represent our interests and provide help for our communities. However, the current situation has embarrassed me and has shocked me to the inner core: The political feud between two leaders of Shas–Deri, the leader of the past, and Yishai, the leader who took his place.
Aryeh Deri is no hero, but a convict sent to prison for corruption in the late 90`s. But it was under his leadership where Shas sided with the government and approved the Oslo Accords, in what we political commentators call Shas`s “left-wing” days. Eli Yishai, when he became leader, steered the party to the right to the point where in their own manifesto, Israel must now not give up land for peace. Even economic policy has seen a right wing shift under Yishai to the point of supporting Netanyahu`s budget cuts since the prime minister took office in 2009. Both men were bound to knock heads eventually.
It was kind of a shock to me when Deri came back to lead Shas. A man convicted over corruption charges to lead a national party!? It was an outrage, a shonda, and I would go so far to say chillul Hashem! However, Yishai was problematic, especially over his blunders as Internal Affairs Minister during the devastating Mount Carmel fires of 2010. However, this is ancient history and Shas is now encountering the most dangerous situation they have ever faced: the feud between Yishai and Deri, and party in-fighting.
Yishai supposedly releasing a video of Maran Ovadia calling Deri an evil man. Yishai threatening the Deri camp to stop the attacks on him or he`ll release more dangerous videos to Deri`s political career. Adina Bar-Shalom–the daughter of Maran Ovadia–calling for more female roles in Shas which was spurred by Haredi women claiming they would boycott the party. Radical Deri supporters threatening violence and calling Yishai a traitor. Let`s also not forget Yishai left and formed his own party!
With Yishai`s introduction of his new party HaAm Itanu, polls at the time predicted that Shas would only win four Knesset seats. Moreover, current polling from January 2nd shows the party would win 6 or 7 while HaAm Itanu would not even pass the threshold. Polls are not reliable, however if they were, there would be no question who would represent the Sephardic Hasidic community. The political damage is bigger than a two man feud.
For one thing, non-Hasidic Sephardic voters are leaving Shas, due not only to the fighting and instability of Shas leadership, but also to the death of Maran Ovadia, who had published lenient halacha rulings and embraced non-Hasidic Sephardic voters.
With a party that is central to its religious elite rather than their political leaders, it’s absurd to suggest that Shas could survive without the great Maran, without him they have become a bunch of scrabbling children, passing notes and making comments contrary to their beliefs against committing lashon hara.
By doing this, the danger is that Shas may be so divided that they will never be able to secure their strong political position in the Knesset ever again, with Hasidic voters fleeing back to United Torah Judaism or, Hashem forbid, Bayit Yehudi! (The latter not so much, but a real possibility).
In order to accomplish some sort of balance, Deri needs to reign in his camp, cease the inflammatory comments about Yishai, and focus on condemning Netanyahu on his poor economic record when it comes to providing for Hasidic and lower income families. This would include criticizing Netanyahu`s scrapping of Lapid`s zero-vat tax on housing, as well as a controlled and moderate mention of the war on Hasidic yeshiva boys in forcing them to join the IDF. These two issues have always drummed up support for Hasidic parties and one of the primary reasons Deri refused to join Netanyahu`s coalition in 2013.
For Yishai there is no future or hope. Blame for the release of the now-infamous Maran video has been placed squarely on him, despite the fact that he has been actively denying it. His chances are now slim-to-none, with many of his long-term supporters believing that with the video’s release, he has gone too far. Playing into negative smear tactics and discrediting Deri with proof that Maran Ovadia didn`t want a convict to lead the party may have worked in a secular party, but Yishai should realize the community he belongs to: a community that considers negative comments to be left in strict private and not opened up to the world.
With this one can see how Maran Ovadia`s legacy, while secured, has been greatly hampered by this current infighting among his beloved Shas. The man whose name means Servant of G-D would shake his fist at anger and call both men evil while looking down from above.
Tyler Samuels is a liberal traditionalist Sephardic Jew, Political Science/History student at the University of Toronto and religious director of the University of Toronto Scarborough Jew Student Life. Also a small time writer and poet, Tyler runs his blog Bipolar Reb (https://bipolarreb.wordpress.com/) that mixes Judaism, politics and mental illness.
Header image courtesy of Pixabay.