On April 23, 1997, the general secretary of Israel’s Sephardi orthodox Shas movement, Rabbi Aryeh Deri, was carried shoulder high above the roar of more than 20,000 adoring supporters gathered in the Givat Ram sports stadium in West Jerusalem. “We are all Deri,” was one chant; “Deri equals Dreyfus” was another.

Three days before, Israel’s attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, had indicted Deri on extortion charges for his role in the short-lived appointment of Rubinstein’s predecessor, Roni Bar-On. According to Deri, his indictment and the acquittal of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Justice Minister Tzahi Hanegbi and the director-general of the premier’s office, Avigdor Lieberman, for want of “sufficient evidence,” was further evidence of the political and legal establishment”s “religious and ethnic persecution” against “our sacred movement and Sephardi culture” generally. Every Mizrahi [1] in Israel knew to what he was alluding.

Netanyahu, Hanegbi and Lieberman are Ashkenazis, or Jews of European descent. Deri and the members of Shas are Mizrahis, legatees and offspring of those Jews who emigrated to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s from Morocco, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and India. “Four people are recommended for indictment and the three Ashkenazis come away clean, and only Deri, the Sephardi, is accused,” commented Shas’s Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs Aryeh Gamliel, on news of Rubinstein’s verdict. The conclusion was self evident. “They have come to screw the blacks again,” he said.

Deri’s Givat Ram speech was clearly an attempt to rally the “blacks” against Rubinstein’s ruling. What, however, was its political meaning? Most Israeli commentators — especially those in the Ashkenazi-dominated Hebrew press — viewed the speech as a cynical move by Deri to play the ethnic card to save his political skin. Others, however, saw it as more significant. “I think it proclaimed the final arrival of Shas and its Sephardi constituencies as a third force in Israeli politics,” said Israeli political analyst and journalist Peretz Kidron. “At Givat Ram, Deri was saying that from now on Shas should be viewed on equal, not subordinate, terms with Israel’s main parties of Likud and Labor.”

Shas on the Rise

Established in 1984, Shas is already the most successful Sephardi movement in the history of Israeli politics. Shas’ appeal has been based on “restoring” in its followers a sense of religious and ethnic pride drawn from the 2,000 years of Sephardi Jewish civilization preceding the advent of nineteenth-century European Zionist ideology. Shas, however, has won electoral support and political respect for this return to faith by addressing the very real social problems of inequality and discrimination facing Mizrahis in contemporary Israeli society.

Few commentators can deny that Israel is an ethnically riven society, with the fault line drawn along the divide of class. Far from dissolving into Zionism’s imagined “ethnic ferment,” recent research shows that the class gap between Ashkenazis and Mizrahis has widened over the last 20 years. In 1992, the average male Mizrahi worker earned 68 percent of the salary of his Ashkenazi counterpart; in 1975, he earned 79 percent. Compared to 28 percent of Ashkenazis born in Israel, 54 percent of the Mizrahis born in Israel work in blue-collar trades. While Mizrahis constitute approximately half of Israel’s Jewish population, they make up only one fourth of all university students, a ratio that has remained constant for the last 23 years. The Mizrahis are also disproportionately represented among Israel’s unemployed and in its prisons, with most sentenced for the “poverty crimes” of delinquency, petty theft and prostitution. If, by dint of the racism inscribed in state structures and laws, Israel’s Palestinians are its second-class citizens, then the Mizrahis are its “blacks” — a self-reference Shas activists like Gamliel routinely use to define themselves and their place in Israeli society.

It is these communities that Shas set out to save. Steered by the religious authority of Rabbi Ovadia Youssef (Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi between 1974 and 1984 and a internationally renowned Torah scholar), but politically driven by Deri, over the 14 years of its existence Shas has built a social movement unrivaled by any other party in Israel, be it Ashkenazi or Mizrahi. By 1997, Shas had three radio stations, a weekly newspaper and a satellite TV station (which transmits Ovadia Youssef’s Torah and other commentaries each week to 400 points in Israel and worldwide). It provided 500 kindergartens for 10,000 pupils and subsidized 100 grade schools and religious seminaries for another 10,000 students. Its Bnei Hayil youth movement claims a membership of 10,000 while its women’s movement has 12,000. Weaving these into a coherent movement is Shas’ jewel, the El-Hama’ayan educational network, which, according to its director-general, Rabbi Kanfu, initiates “380,000 religious, social and vocational activities annually.”

The existence of such an infrastructure has created new constituencies that have returned political dividends. Starting out with four members of Knesset in Israel’s 1984 elections, by the 1996 poll Shas had climbed to 10 MKs, two cabinet ministers (covering the crucial domestic portfolios of the Interior and Social and Labor Affairs), and overall control of 30 municipal councils nationwide. Adopting political strategies akin to the Islamist movements in Lebanon, Egypt and Algeria, Shas penetrated the state by bypassing it. It did so, as did the Islamists, by politically activating constituencies the traditional Mizrahis residing and working in the “development towns, poor areas and slums,” as expressed by Deri — that the state and Israel’s main political parties had historically neglected. “The establishment should be ashamed of how it has behaved over the last 50 years,” comments Shas MK David Tal. “We help the weak to survive. We build their self-esteem. That helps them help themselves.”

This also helps Shas. Today, the obscure religious movement founded 14 years ago by Youssef among the “traditional Sephardis” is Israel’s third largest political force and the most influential religious party in Israeli politics — a party without which neither Labor nor Likud can govern.

The Politics of Shas

Yet politically Shas remains an enigma. Shas’ pride in its Mizrahi (and, as such, largely Arab) heritage and its hostility toward the Eurocentric biases of Zionism should at least suggest the possibility of a common cause with Palestinians, whether around the struggle against discrimination inside Israel or for progress in the peace process in the Occupied Territories. It is a potential commonality that leaders like Deri are keen to emphasize. “I and my colleagues feel closer to Arab culture than to Ashkenazi culture,” he says. “When I was minister of the interior” [between 1988-1992], I supported the Arab municipalities in Israel and tried to correct some of the discrimination they suffered. I raised their issues on the national agenda.” Nobody denies this. “In general, I see the Sephardis as being part of the peoples of the region — with the Arabs in Israel, the Egyptians, Jordanians and Palestinians. We have no problem with them except the political conflict. And I hope this conflict will be resolved politically through the peace process.”

Shas was also the only Orthodox party in Israel to join the Labor party’s coalition government of 1992-1996, staying with it long enough for Rabin to sign the Oslo accords with the PLO in 1993. It was an alliance that today Deri unequivocally defends. “Without Shas, there would have been no Oslo agreement,” he says. “It was due to the wisdom of Ovadia Youssef that he took a traditionally right-wing constituency — the people Menachem Begin mobilized against the Arabs in 1976 — and brought it to Shas, which I would define as a center-left party vis-a-vis the peace process.” Also, “despite our support for Oslo, we doubled our vote in the 1996 elections. How do you explain this? It means our constituency accepts our political and spiritual leadership.”

In 1994, however, Shas broke away from the Labor coalition and, in 1996, became an indispensable part of Binyamin Netanyahu’s current Likud-led government. The cause and the blame for the unraveling of what had been an unprecedented alliance between Israel’s largest Orthodox party and the secular “peace camp” remains a moot point among Israeli analysts. For Peretz Kidron, Shas’ turn to the right was grounded in pragmatism and tactical gain. “Both Youssef and Deri are aware that Shas’ rank and file are more comfortable with Likud than the Ashkenazi-dominated Labor party,” he says. “Shas views Israeli nationalism as a legitimate tool if it helps enlarge their electoral support.”

David Landau, author of an acclaimed book on the Orthodox movement in Israel, is less convinced. “Ovadia Youssef’s commitment to the peace process is principled and has been so for 30 years.” Rather, he says, the source of Shas’ estrangement from Israel’s “secular peace camp” lies less in doubts over the peace process than over the religious-secular divide in Israel.

Landau is clear about which party was most at fault in the collapse of the 1992-1996 coalition, “Meretz, and especially Israel’s former education minister, Shulamit Aloni,” he says. “Within the Rabin coalition, there had been an unwritten understanding between the parties to put aside all policy differences in the pursuit of peace. Halfway through that coalition — when the going was getting really tough — Aloni resorted to the politics of a schoolgirl. She couldn’t resist sticking her tongue out at her Orthodox coalition partners. I mean, was it so vital, in 1994, to open a fight with Shas on the origins of creation? Rabin was also insensitive for making her education minister in the first place.” It was a schism that left a scar on Shas’ subsequent political direction. Today, says Deri, Shas would not again sit in a government consisting only of Labor and Meretz. Deri’s preferred route appears rather to be that of a national unity government.

“We believe that fundamental questions to do with the peace process require a wide national consensus,” says Deri. “Labor wants to make peace, but it can’t. Likud can make peace, but is unsure if it wants to. That is why we are in the government coalition. We are trying to encourage Netanyahu to go with the peace process. This is one of our disputes with Meretz, aside from our differences over religion. Meretz believed it could proceed with the peace process without the support of the Sephardi community, but without this support, Oslo will be seen to be an agreement between only the Ashkenazi and the rich. The [1997] Hebron agreement is durable because it carries the signature of Netanyahu and, with it, the majority of the Knesset.”

Shas and the Palestinians

Attitudes toward Shas are no less confused among Palestinians. For the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (DFPE) — the largest “Arab” or non-Zionist party in the Knesset — Shas is seen, irredeemably, as part of the religious right. The DFPE has instead preferred to build alliances with Meretz and the Labor Party’s left wing, largely on the basis of their advocacy of Oslo. The one exception to this approach among the Palestinian-supported parties has been Israel’s emergent Islamist movement. In the late 1980s, it forged a tacit understanding with Shas as it swept to municipal election victories against DFPE in the Palestinian villages of Kafr Qana and Umm al-Fahm. It was a “marriage of convenience” grounded in the two movements’ espousal of religious values and hostility to secularism. “I have no problem with the Islamic movement in Israel,” says Deri. “As mayors, they were the best. They were dedicated and provided good services to their communities. They had clean hands.”

There are also signs that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is beginning to reappraise its attitude toward Shas and recognize its pivotal importance in Israeli politics, if not as a firm champion of Palestinian national rights, then at least as the one component in Netanyahu’s coalition that could force adherence to the terms of the Oslo process. In the last six months, Ovadia Youssef has held meetings with the PLO’s chief negotiator, Mahmoud ‘Abbas, while Deri has had talks with ‘Abbas, PA presidential adviser Ahmad Tibi and Information Minister Yasir ‘Abid Rabbu. There are also ongoing rumors of a future meeting between Youssef, Deri and Yasser Arafat.

But, says Palestinian political analyst Khalil Shikaki, the Palestinian Authority should not view such contacts as “merely public relations.” They need to be part of an “overall strategy” toward Mizrahis in Israel. “We can only talk to the Mizrahi community if we make an effort to understand it,” says Shikaki. “But Palestinians still don’t really know the Mizrahis’ level of religiosity, or why so many Mizrahis voted for Shas in the last Israeli elections. Yet this traditional and pragmatic constituency are precisely those Israelis to whom the PA should be appealing. We should not concentrate all our efforts solely on the Israeli opposition of Labor, Meretz and the Arab parties.”


[1] Shas, a Sephardi political party, is comprised primarily of Mizrahi Jews. Mizrahi, Hebrew for “eastern,” refers to those Jews who immigrated to Israel from North Africa, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq and India. Sephardi, meaning “Spanish” in Hebrew, is used to describe the religious and cultural heritage of Jewish civilization in Andalusia. Shas’ political project is to recover this “golden age” of Sephardi civilization.

How to cite this article:

Graham Usher "The Enigmas of Shas," Middle East Report 207 (Summer 1998).

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