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A Layman's Guide To WWIII:
Who's Who in Israeli Politics
By Kevin Filan

Shas

Haredim   |  Israeli Arabs   |  Likud   |  Labor   |  Nat. Religious Party   |  Shas

The first Israelis were largely Ashkenazim, with roots in Eastern Europe and Russia. A ragtag band of Holocaust survivors and refugees fleeing the postwar chaos, they established themselves in Palestine and set up their Jewish state against all odds. The next wave of immigrants were largely Sephardim, Jews from North Africa and the Arab countries. They too were fleeing chaos and persecution, as anti-Israel sentiment turned to anti-Jewish pogroms throughout the Middle East. Yet even in Israel they found themselves second-class citizens. The Ashkenazic establishment, with their European mores and cultures, had difficulty dealing with these Arabic Jews, and soon the "Jewish state" became a stratified one, with a white-collar Ashkenazic elite and a Sephardic proletariat handling manual labor.

Since that time things have changed; now Palestinians, and increasingly foreigners, are handling much of the manual labor which was once the province of the Sephardim. The Sephardic immigrants have become integrated into Israeli society; David Levy, former foreign minister, was a Moroccan-born Jew, while Iranian Jew Moshe Katsav currently serves in the (largely symbolic) role of Israeli President. Still, many of the Sephardim feel isolated and distrustful of the secularized and Europeanized Ashkenazim and have turned to Shas for representation.

Shas (a Hebrew anacronym for "Sephardic Torah Guardians") was founded in 1984 as a local municipal list in Jerusalem, but quickly grew into a major political party. With their three main policy planks - Torah-observant Judaism, a strong social welfare program, and support for the rights of Sephardic Jews - they galvanized the Sephardic party. Things slowed down when Aryeh Devi, a charismatic young Moroccan Rabbi who had become one of the leading luminaries of Shas, became embroiled in a decade-long bribery scandal which ultimately sent him to prison. Still, this only helped in the end to fuel Sephardic beliefs that they were being singled out and persecuted by the establishment; when Devi reported to prison in September 2000, he was surrounded by thousands of Orthodox Sephardic supporters. When Yitzhak Kaduri urged people to vote for Shas in 1996, opponents riduculed his use of magic amulets. They stopped laughing when Shas became part of Netanyahu's government after a surprisingly good showing at the polls.

Today Shas is the third-largest political party in Israel, commanding 17 seats in the Knesset. Its chief spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, commands considerable respect among both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Orthodox Jews. In the past, they have been rather dovish with regard to the Palestinian question, favoring a withdrawal from the West Bank and occupied territories if this would save Jewish lives. The recent massacre at Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarchs, one of Judaism's most holy sites, may result in a firmer stance in the future. Some critics have accused Shas of creating a "state within a state" through its extensive network of Torah schools and welfare centers for large families; accusations of corruption, along with counter-accusations of "anti-Sephardic discrimination" have flown freely. Nonetheless, Shas will remain a force to be reckoned with in future Israeli elections, as it is likely that any future leader will have to include Shas in their coalition.

 


Mike Doughty



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