Shas--The Sephardic Torah Guardians: Religious "Movement" and Political Power by Aaron P. Willis

Shas—The Sephardic Torah Guardians:
Religious "Movement" and Political Power


Aaron P. Willis

Princeton University

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef

Spiritual leader of the Shas Party, Former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef,
from ha-Ma‘yan ha-mitgaber: sipurah shel tenu‘at Shas (The Story of Shas) by Aryeh Dayan,
Keter Publishing, Israel, 1991.


The Elections in Israel—1992. ed. Asher Arian and Michael Shamir. Albany: SUNY Press. 1995.

This analysis is based on extended fieldwork in a Sephardic haredi community in Jerusalem. I thank the MacArthur Foundation, the Center of International Studies at Princeton University, and the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture for their support of this research and its writing.

June 21,1992. Scene: "Solemn Assembly" in Jerusalem. The various speakers, musicians, and honored rabbis are shuttled in and out. Assistants on stage maintain telephone contact with the speakers and performers, coordinating their movement between assemblies. Oriental music fills the night air with lyrics that play emotionally on the trials and tribulations of teshuva (repentance). Ovadia Yosef, the president of the Shas Council of Torah Sages moves off to his waiting helicopter after addressing and blessing the gathered crowd. Moments later Interior Minister Arye Deri arrives. He apologizes for being late and adds: "You have been standing here for hours . . . but this is not the only place that we have gathered. I have just arrived from Lod. Three thousand people are right now listening to the words of our master and teacher Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. We were in Pardes Katz just before. Five thousand people are there listening to words of Torah. Everyday, all over the country there are thousands of people coming to these assemblies. Shas is the only one that brings the masses of Israel to hear the sacred words of Rav Ovadia Yosef . . ."

In the aftermath of the 1992 Knesset elections, Shas has moved to center stage in the Israeli political arena. After its initial success in the 1984 Knesset elections, the party has only continued to grow in terms of both voter support and influence in key government agencies. In political terms, Shas has played the game well, leveraging its position to gain the most from coalition agreements with the larger parties. However, in its own terms Shas is "not a political party" but rather "a religious movement [t'nuah]." Largely appealing to sentiments of "ethnic pride" and "religious tradition" among Israel's Sephardic communities, Shas has portrayed itself as a "peoples' movement" with a mandate for social and spiritual renewal.

The metaphor of movement was given tangible form in Shas assemblies like the one cited above: the movement of spiritual leaders whisked from one part of the country to another; the spiritual/moral movement of individuals and families transforming themselves in teshuva; and religious/political movement with the goals of the party elaborated and the image of nationwide community of believers offered. The sense of momentum and direction was furthered in popular slogans like "the revolution cannot be stopped" or "return the crown to its glorious past."

The origins of Shas in 1984 and its subsequent involvement in the Israeli political arena has been documented elsewhere (Heilman 1990; Friedman 1991). This essay offers a sense of the "religious imagination" that has informed Shas's 1992 election campaign. How has the movement been conceptualized in terms of images, stories, and symbols? I argue that in order to understand the methods and goals of Shas as a "political party," we must first understand what it means as a "religious movement."

I. The Campaign: "Imagining" the Movement

The Shas campaign was a multimedia affair, bringing images, symbols, and catchy musical tunes to a diversity of communities, secular and observant alike. At the central bus station in Jerusalem activists set up camp distributing leaflets, musical and video cassettes, and pictures of Rabbis Ovadia and Kaduri ("the elder of Kabbalists"). Electrical generators supplied power for video presentations. When the video was not running, tape players blasted in several directions with the Shas election theme song:

Remember on election day
God's Torah of light
We will return the crown to the past

Our Master and Teacher, Ovadia

(chorus) Everyone is voting, only Shas
Faith we give, to Shas
To honor the Torah, with Shas
together everyone in Joy

Yeshiva students with time off from their studies for this "sacred work " 1 sold the cassettes for a shekel a piece (40 cents). In trying to convince individuals to vote for Shas one student flipped the cassette open and, referring to a colorful drawing on the inside, listed off all the reasons that one should need: synagogues, ritual baths, keeping the sabbath, yeshivot, torah schools, and the Wellspring. Another activist explained that in voting for Shas one gains a share of the "merit" that accrues with all these efforts. It is "as if" one himself has physically helped to build a new ritual bath or contributed to help yeshiva students study Torah.

Shas stressed simple statements. Flipping though a newspaper with advertisements from different parties provided the greatest contrast. Whereas one party had crammed as much information and as many points as possible into their allotted space, another emphasized the photographs of its top candidates and added various points of principal. As one turned the page, Shas's message, in an equivalent space, read simply "Shas: I believe." Leaflets were handed out that captured in images one of the most profound messages of the Shas campaign. The leaflet featured two photographs and read simply, "the curse, and the blessing." On top, the walls of the Ramle prison were featured and identified; below, the "blessing" was indicated by a room full of children learning Torah—written beneath the photographs: "vote Shas, vote for life." The message was clear. While the prison represented the Sephardic past in Israel, the study of Torah stood as the future. In voting for Shas one voted for redemption and renewal of the Sephardic community in Israel.

Shas leaders were involved in highly publicized investigations into their conduct while in office. Accusations of fraud and financial mismanagement had been leaked to the press in the two years preceding the election bid. In an hour-long video production defending Interior Minister Arye Deri from police investigations, similar images of persecution and redemption were juxtaposed. Video images of thousands of Shas supporters reciting prayers, or blowing the shofar at the Western Wall were overdubbed with the sound of police sirens. The police room for the investigation was likened to a war headquarters, and the hundreds of investigators who had interviewed thousands of "witnesses," were likened to warriors. "It is not a war against Deri, it is against you. If you are Sephardic and Jewish and believe in the mitzvot and the Torah . . . if you believe in Torah schools and ritual baths, it is against you." The investigation is portrayed as a "political" ploy authorized by the highest levels of government officialdom who fear the newly found power of the Shas movement. The image of police sirens chasing Sephardic children is not new. The investigations are just another chapter in the long history of discrimination against Sephardim at the hands of secular and Ashkenazi state. "They do not even conduct investigations like this against members of the PLO," one Shas supporter complained.2

To Shas supporters on the street, the reaction to the investigations was indeed more varied than the single message that the video was meant to create. One man appealed to the more general metaphysical parameters of the conflict:

It is written that "what is sacred complicates itself." When Abraham, in doubt over whether to actually sacrifice Isaac or not, looked over into the bush and saw that the ram had become entangled in the brush he knew that it was a sign from God [see Genesis 22:13]. Similarly things which are sacred become entangled. Because Shas helps to sanctify the name of Heavens, people will try to bring it down.

Others appealed to a more practical sense of realpolitik: "the investigations are punishment for Shas bringing down the government. The Likud wants to clip Deri's wings, to warn him not to get too carried away with himself." Another man quietly confided in me that he believed that Deri had in fact taken money illegally for himself, "but that is part of what it means to be a minister here in Israel." As for the accusations that Deri helped to get money transferred to religious institutions associated with the Shas movement, he continued: "what party has not operated this way, the Likud funding settlements in the territories, Labor, and the kibbutzim, this is how it works." Yet another claimed that the investigations had indeed tarnished the name of Shas, but he was firm in his commitment: "as long as Rav Ovadia gives his hand to the movement, I will support it."

II. Teshuva: Spiritual/Moral Movement

The double meaning of teshuva (both repentance and return) was ideally suited to the Shas message. It represented the process of personal movement away from less observant and committed past to a future of spiritual fulfillment and enhanced individual destiny. At the same time, it was a symbolic "return " to the once great traditions of the Sephardic past, "to a complete Judaism, a rich Judaism, a good Judaism." These two themes were tied in to values of education, family unity, and continuity between generations, thus creating a powerful ideological thrust to the movement that Shas sought to perpetuate.

The interweaving of these various themes was skillfully done in one of Deri's pre-election campaign speeches. Relating a story that was both a result of Shas activities as well as epitomizing the goals for the future of the movement, Deri created a link between past and future. He spoke on the influence which the Shas-supported Torah schools have had on Sephardic Jews who had become "distanced" from the religious customs and traditions of their forebearers:

With a family where there are older ones already grown, what does it matter to them to send the littlest one to the talmud torah (haredi day school). It cannot be worse than what happened to the older ones in the secular schools. Friends I will tell you a child arrives at these schools at the age of four or five he knows nothing besides curses and the ways of the street. After two weeks, you can see the difference. He cleans himself up and begins to wear the clothes of bnei torah. He returns home from school with sacredness in his eyes, with sparks in his eyes—he answers his mother and father, yes, mother; yes, father. Later he returns home on Friday afternoon, he asks his mother to light the sabbath candles. And the mother who hasn't remembered to light the candles for who knows how long, remembers her righteous mother, and she lights the candles. Then she remembers the traditional blessings, on the education of the children, physical sustenance. What Sephardi mother can stand against this force? She begins to cry and makes the blessings that she can return in teshuva, and that the older children will return as well.

The boy asks his father to take him to the synagogue. Do you know a Sephardi father in the world who could say "no" to going to synagogue with his youngest son? On the way, the father remembers when he was little and his father used to take him. During the Shir ha Shirim the father begins to feel it, and then he gets a shock, at the age of four, his son begins to chant: (shuve shuve shulamit) "return, return, that we may look upon thee" (Song of Songs 7:1). And the father's eyes open wide, to see his son that only two weeks ago was cursing.

They arrive home—shabbat, candles, songs. In the middle of the weekly reading, he asks for his father to help him prepare for a test the next week. The father takes the questions and answers and soon begins to get close. After another week or two the parents arrive at the school and exclaim, save us, how can we stand before this child of ours?

The educational framework that Shas provides helps to bring both individuals and entire families "back" to their religious roots. The mother and father in the story remember participating in these rituals with their parents, just as they are doing with their son. It creates stronger bonds within the family unit while creating a continuity between generations. The teshuva of individual and family is connected through Shas with a wider social movement. Deri goes on to claim that thousands of families are making teshuva every year .3

The newly observant (baalei teshuva) are an important link between Shas' haredi and masorti constituencies. This significance is reflected in the choice of a baal teshuva representative for the Knesset list this year. Shlomo Benezri, number six on the Shas list, tells a story that is similar to that told by many of the Shas supporters in the haredi neighborhoods of Jerusalem. He had a national-religious upbringing that made him distant from religion. He went on to a secular high school, where he was successful and popular. He had an older brother who had gone to study in a yeshiva after his army service. After he left the army Benezri went to study in a yeshiva, where he has been for the past eight years. He married and claims that since their marriage his wife's entire family has made teshuva. This story represents the experiences of Shas's many haredi supporters who were not raised in Lithuanian yeshivot (a majority, but no exact numbers exist). Benezri's role as Shas Knesset member serves an important legitimating function for these supporters and furthers the Shas message of teshuva as an integral component to Shas's "movement." Not long after his introduction to the Knesset, Benezri entered into the limelight in the ongoing battle of values between secular and religious Jewish culture in Israel. He publicly attacked the secular poet Haim Bialik, an iconic, if not heroic figure in secular Israeli culture, for having been an enemy to true Judaism. "He caused many, including myself, to distance themselves from religion," Benezri argued, angering many in the secular public.4

III. Blessings, Prayers, and a Charm

Part of what helped to characterize Shas as a religious movement, and not simply just another political party, was the invocation of "sacred" forces in the election campaign. Deri emphasizes that "Shas is the only one which brings the masses of Israel to hear the words of (our Master and Teacher) Rabbi Ovadia Yosef." The campaign is conceptualized as part and parcel of the religious movement that Shas embodies. The people they bring to speak are not just politicians but rather sages—sages who lead the congregations in prayer, teach the wisdom of past generations, and possess the merit to offer powerful blessings.

Prayers were recited that gave the assembly described above the flavor of a religious experience. This was especially true of the closing prayer (o malchut shamayim), which invoked the name of God in order to acknowledge God's absolute sovereignty over creation. This is the same prayer that the Sephardim use in their slichot (repentance) services during the High Holy days and in times of trouble throughout the year. It closed the assembly with a solemn and serious air of urgency. During the course of the assembly the audience was also blessed by Ovadia Yosef, Yitzhak Kaduri, and other important rabbis from the Jerusalem area. They recited informal blessings that were designed to ensure the health and livelihood of those assembled as well as the formal "priestly benediction " which also contained "protective" efficacy.

The invocation of sacred forces was widely misrepresented in the Israeli press. They reported that Shas was offering blessings in exchange for votes, technically a violation of Israeli electoral law.5 The law had been passed after the 1988 elections when rabbis from the leading parties battled it out for votes by granting any who would vote for them blessings in exchange for support. This was felt by many to be an abuse of rabbinic authority and outside the pale of the modern democratic process. For the secular Israeli public these reports had the effect of exoticizing the religious parties at the same time that their voters were made to seem gullible and foolish. In fact, while blessing did play an important part in the campaign, it was never offered "in exchange" for votes. When one walked up to a Shas table they encouraged him to sign a sheet and request a special blessing from the rabbis. However, this was before one even began to discuss the pros and cons of actually voting for Shas. Similarly, at the assemblies, blessings were made for all of those assembled, but that in no way guaranteed one's vote. The blessings were not so much a quid pro quo as they were about creating a sacred atmosphere within the election process.

It was also reported that Yosef had issued a special "blessing" (bracha) to be said at the time of voting. It was actually more a prayer (request) than a blessing (thanksgiving). The voter asked God to recognize that he or she should participate in the merit that accrues to the Shas party for their efforts. It was more a practical act, rather than strictly a magical one. In terms of actual behavior, several "pious" individuals told me that they did not say the prayer. Others, equally pious, stressed its importance. There was no dogma on the matter .

Shas also distributed special items that had protective power. These included stickers with a "blessing over the home" and a "prayer for the road" as well as a special "charm " (kamiya) produced by Rav Kaduri.6 None of these were given out "in exchange" for votes. They were available for all who were interested, and they were in fact, part of what Shas as a religious movement was all about—spreading the word of Torah. I spoke with a Sephardic taxi driver who had the "prayer for the road," complete with color pictures of Yosef and Kaduri, affixed to his steering wheel. He explained that he was voting for one of the more right-wing parties but that did not preclude his appreciation for what Shas had produced. In purely political terms Shas had failed because it would not receive a vote in exchange for the blessing. However, in the terms of a religious movement, it was successful.7 It encouraged a bare-headed Sephardi compatriot to acknowledge the protective powers of God and the sages. The sticker reaffirmed fundamental beliefs, "returning" individuals to their own religious and ethnic roots.8

Rav Ovadia emphasized gematriyot (numerology) in his appeal to voters. In the past term Shas had a hand in the construction of 46 new ritual baths and the repair of 90, equaling a total 136 ritual baths. "In gematriyah 136 equals' kol' (voice or vote)," Ovadia declared. "Give us your voice and we will give you ritual baths." In another context he argued that the unseasonal thunderstorms in the week before the elections were a sign from God to vote for Shas. According to his argument, "thunder" (ra'amim) in gematriyah is equivalent to "Shas."

IV. Competition with Other Parties

Shas had to compete with several other parties for the Sephardic vote. Of the parties that did not gain enough votes to win a Knesset seat, the "Redemption of Israel" Party was closest to Shas in an appeal to the haredi Sephardic voter. Lead by a Sephardic rabbi associated with the Hassidic Habad movement, it stressed a connection to ethnic and religious "roots" that was similar to that of Shas. However, this "redemption" party also emphasized a connection to the principles of army service and "Greater Israel," broadcasting television ads which showed religious men in black suits doing army setvice or inspecting the progress of new settlemen ts in the Occupied Territories. Rav Levinger, an Ashkenazi rabbi and settlement leader, more directly attacked Shas in an attempt to gain support from the observant Sephardic community. His Torah and the Land party emphasized settlement of the occupied territories and broadcast television images of Levinger meandering through the Arab market in Hebron with a rifle over his shoulder. Levinger attacked Deri and Shas for their efforts to gain support in Israel's Arab sector. Playing on the notion of Shas's Council of Torah Sages, Levinger offered pictures of Deri embracing Arab politicians with the caption "The Central Council of Peace Sages," thus trying to steer the traditionally more right-wing Sephardic voters away from Shas. Both of these parties were only marginally successful in their efforts to attract Shas supporters, and neither passed the necessary percentage to gain a seat in the Knesset

The most formidable challenge to Shas's constituency was lodged by Rav Peretz and the United Torah list. Peretz, a loyal Sephardic student of Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Shach, claimed to represent the haredi core of the Shas constituency, those students who had grown up in or studied under rabbis who had been educated in the Lithuanian yeshivot. Rav Shach had been instrumental in the development of Shas as a breakaway faction from Agudat Israel in 1984, and up until the 1992 elections he maintained a central role as spiritual and political advisor to the Shas party. However, ten days before the election, Shach made a controversial statement. Reacting to fears that Deri would try to manipulate the Sephardic vote by threatening to cut off funds to Shach's (Ashkenazi) educational network, Shach complained that "the Sephardim are not ready yet to manage affairs of religion and state . . . they are growing and developing and returning to their roots, but they still need more time to learn." 9 Shach threw his support behind Peretz, who, if elected, would be forced to work within the Ashkenazi-dominated United Torah coalition. The United Torah Party placed Peretz at the forefront of its advertising campaign, trying to convince the Sephardic public that Peretz was their representative to the Knesset. Peretz's face was ever present on United Torah's posters and in its television advertisements.10

Television ads showed Peretz sitting with Sephardi students, both observant and bare headed, answering questions. He claimed not just that he was a Sephardic representative in an otherwise all-Ashkenazi party but rather that he was the leader of the newly created Moriah "movement," which would tend to the spiritual needs of the Sephardic community. He offered "Judaism with a soul" and swore to protect the country from "the left." Reminding voters that Shas had brought down the government to help to form a coalition with Labor in 1990, Peretz also appealed to the more conservative Sephardi constituency. He stood on his record of dissent from the previous Shas policies and promised to enter into coalition discussions only with the Likud. He had active support on the street from an elite group of Sephardic yeshiva students studying in Lithuanian yeshivot, the bnei torah Sephardim (Sephardi Torah students). In more aggressive and lower profile activities, they circulated stickers that played on the Shas theme of "return the crown to the glorious past," writing instead "return the crown and glory to honesty," lodging a direct attack on Deri's integrity in the face of ongoing police investigations.

Shas did not react to the competition with United Torah Judaism (or any of the other parties mentioned above) in any direct or highly public manner. In effect they still had published an allegiance to Shach and refrained from attacking his party directly. While Peretz attempted to create the image of a break within the Sephardic community out of which his new movement could emerge, Shas continued to stress a "Sephardic unity" message, not attacking Peretz openly. However, two days before the elections an unsigned poster appeared throughout Jerusalem and Bnei Brak that went to the heart of the conflict between Peretz and Shas. "Dear Sephardic voter: support United Torah," the poster declared, "we want you to vote for us even though Sephardim only make up five percent of our yeshiva students, three percent of out torah schools, and two percent of students in our advanced study centers. God forbid that these quotas should be broken! But we want eighty percent of your vote." The poster continued in its tongue-in-check style, concluding with a direct attack on Peretz's young followers: "Today you are bnei torah Sephardim, but tomorrow [after the elections] you will be "frenkim" [a derogatory reference to Jews of North African origin]. The message was poignant in its attack on Ashkenazi institutions, which have a clear history of limiting the number of Sephardic students in their schools. It legitimated Shas's claim that years of discrimination at the hands of the secular and haredi Ashkenazi establishment could be solved only by the creation and development of an entire system of education that would cater to the specific needs of the Sephardic community.

V. The Elections to the 1992 Knesset

The election results gave the Shas movement a strong push forward. While it was anticipated that they might lose several seats, in the end Shas gained one seat, bringing their total representation to six Knesset seats.11 Whereas in the 1988 elections Shas received 107,709 votes, they brought their total support up to 129,347 in 1992.12 The other main haredi list, United Torah Judaism (UJT) lost support, going from seven representatives (eight, if you include Peretz) in the 1988 Knesset to only four in 1992. Apparently, many of the Sephardic students in the Lithuanian yeshivot voted for Shas despite instructions from their yeshiva leadership to support Peretz and UTJ. The UTJ also failed to bring in the non-haredi Sephardic voters. Shas had clearly benefited from Shach's comments the previous week that the Sephardim were not ready for leadership positions. His statement caused a backlash in which the Sephardic haredi students' connection to their ethnic roots outweighed their sense of obligation to the Lithuanian-educated yeshiva leadership.13 Moreover, Shach's comments seems to have brought voters that had been hesitating between Shas and Likud.14 The Likud itself had suffered from public accusations of ethnic discrimination in the placing of David Levy, then foreign minister, on their list to the Knesset prior to the elections. The words of Shach helped to move them into Shas' camp, where the message of "ethnic pride" resonated well with their sense of discrimination and frustration at the hands of the largely Ashkenazi-dominated political establishment.

Shas also drew close to 13,000 votes from the Arab sector.15 In the year preceding the election, Deri invested in Arab Israeli communities in his capacity as interior minister. He made appearances in Arab villages and worked with clan-based and municipal leaderships to help facilitate the distribution of funds from his ministry. He appealed to the Arabs on ideological grounds claiming that (1) he was a religious man and could respect their religious values and (2) he too had known deprivation and discrimination at the hands of the political establishment. He would work to end discrimination and inequalities in the distribution of state funds. Deri found solid support among Arab community leaders, and several Shas headquarters were set up in Bedouin villages in the south. One of the leaders there said that he would support Shas because Deri was an interior minister "who could get things done and advance the plans for development in the Arab municipalities." 16

There were also a fair number of Ashkenazi haredim who voted for Shas. Whereas in Bnei Brak, Shach's home turf, Shas had received only 5,700 votes in 1988, now they claimed more than 9,000.17 Also, it appears that most of the 3,000 voters from the Belz Hassidic community in Jerusalem voted for Shas.18 Their Rebbe had issued a sacred proclamation to vote for Torah Judaism, but after negotiations broke down over whether the Belz would be able to field a representative to the Knesset, their leader turned against UTJ and urged his followers to vote Shas.

Rav Ovadia turned out to be the big victor on the haredi street. Deri proudly proclaimed that while many had believed that half of Shas seats in the previous election were voters loyal to Shach, Ovadia Yosef now had the net vote with six seats.19 Yosef had emerged as the sole leader in the Sephardic haredi community, with support for Peretz and Shach severely diminished. Shas MK Yosef Ezran enthusiastically claimed that the results of the election "prove that Shas is not just a curiosity nor a fleeting phenomenon, but rather a genuine peoples' movement." 20 Indeed, Shas has more voter support (in absolute numbers) than ever before, and it is about to embark on a massive project of institutionalization at the state's expense. Shas's ability to institutionalize is the fruit of its coalition bargaining efforts, a subject to which we now turn.

VI. Joining the Labor-led coalition

The elections to the thirteenth Knesset marked the end of fifteen years of Likud dominance and the rise of a Labor-left coalition. Labor and Meretz brought fifty-six seats to a possible coalition. With the Arab parties holding five seats, it was enough to block the Likud from forming a government. Rabin, the Labor leader, wanted to form a wide coalition, bringing in both the more right-wing Tzomet as well as the religious parties. However, he was also in a hurry to set up his new government. At the very least, he still needed one more party to help him over the sixty seat majority necessary to form the coalition.21 During the election campaign Shas had vowed to support a Likud government, thus appealing to voters who might have been hesitating between Likud and Shas. However, with the clear Labor victory, Shas made no excuses, and quickly came to a coalition agreement with Labor, giving Labor the majority it needed to form the new government. Shas was given the portfolio of interior minister, which it had held for the past eight years under the Likud, as well as several important deputy ministerial positions, including education and religion.22

Initially Deri and Shach had discussed forming a haredi block, which would include United Torah's four seats and the six from Shas. They would negotiate together, and no independent agreements would be offered to Labor. Yet, in the aftermath of their devastating loss, the United Torah Party was not as unified as the name suggested. Agudat Israel convened its own Council of Torah Sages to debate principles, leaving Shach's Degel representatives and Peretz out of their discussions. Unity was quick to return however when Shas independently announced its intention to join the Labor government. Rav Shach made it clear that he opposed Shas's decision. Shach was particularly angered by the Labor decision to offer Shulamit Aloni, head of the left-Meretz alignment, the Ministry of Education. Her "secular humanist" values were directly antithetical to those of a Torah observant Judaism, Shach argued, worrying that close to a million students in the secular-state educational system would become only more distanced from their religious roots.23 He also feared that she might work to channel money away from the haredi Independent schools.24

Breaking with Shach for the first time in the battle for control of the Shas movement, Ovadia Yosef provoked a deep split between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic haredi worlds. His direct disregard for Shach's wishes were viewed as an insult to the learning and integrity of Shach, almost twenty-five years Yosef's elder. Soon other leading Ashkenazi rabbis came out with halachic (legal) decisions that participation in a coalition with Aloni as education minister was an act against the Jewish people and therefore illegitimate.25 Yosef found himself alone in the haredi world. But he held his ground against an increasingly hostile Ashkenazi community, buoyed by Shas's resounding success in the election booth and Torah Judaism's declining stature. His move was a declaration of independence and has created a great deal of confusion in the closely intertwined Ashkenazi and Sephardic haredi worlds where Shach's overarching religious authority has held these groups together for years.26

United Torah supporters argued that Shas's jump into the coalition agreement was motivated by Deri's fear of prosecution on corruption charges (he is immune from prosecution as a minister; that immunity may be taken away, but it is a more complicated process and one more subject to political manipulation and bargaining). Others suggested that it had been Yosef's clear intention since 1990 to help Labor form a coalition, and that the promises to go with the Likud were empty election rhetoric. Yet, I argue that in order to understand Shas's entry into the Labor government, we need to return to its ideology as a "religious movement."

In joining the government coalition, Shas was guaranteed its pick of choice portfolios. Maintaining control over the Interior Ministry as well as taking up the deputy posts in Education and Religion will help realize Shas's commitment to channel funds to the religious needs of the Sephardic community. With Shas's "political" platform being essentially "more ritual baths and funding for Torah education in a community which has been deprived for years," other ideological considerations were clearly secondary. They were not elected with any firm commitment to either the left or the right. Their mandate was elaborated by one of the shopkeepers in the old Bucharan market in Jerusalem after the election. Echoing the movement's imagery, he explained: "Shas was created to 'spread Torah, make it great, and return the crown and glory to the past,'" adding that, "it is forbidden for Shas to sit in opposition." 27

While the National Religious Party has chosen to sit in opposition because of the Labor position on the future of the occupied territories, for Shas this was never a question. Because of the way Shas has been imagined as a movement, it does not make sense for it to take a firm stand on this issue. Yosef has made his position clear that it is permissible to give up territories if it will save Jewish lives but "that is a decision for generals and not for rabbis." Also, Shas brings together voters, who both support and oppose issues like "greater Israel," under the unifying banner of "Sephardism" and "religious tradition." The more general rallying points of the movement thus attract a constituency that is full of contradictory political sentiments. For Shas to take a firm stand on any of the potentially divisive issues would negate its message, and effectiveness, as a religious movement. "The future of the territories is not connected to the need for Torah education within the Sephardic community," explained an official in the Wellspring organization who noted that his personal sentiments were to the right on the question of the territories.

Even before Yosef made the decision to break from Shach over the issue of coalition agreements, it was reported that Yosef intended to steer the Shas movement in a direction that was "less haredi and more ethnic," focusing on social problems unique to the Sephardic communities.28 Initial changes may include the structure of the Council of Torah Sages. Yosef would like to increase the number of representatives on this council, bringing in younger rabbis who work more with the masorti Sephardic community and are not directly connected to Shach. This includes figures like Moshe Mazuz, the leader of the Tunisian community, or Reuven Elbaz, the Moroccan-born leader of the teshuva movement in Israel. Adding members to the council would serve to lessen the influence of Shach and the Ashkenazi haredim.

Yosef also intends to move Shas in a more clearly Zionist direction (Willis 1992). Whereas Shas was developed from Agudat Israel, commonly labelled a "non-Zionist" party in the academic literature, Shas has always had more of a Zionist flavor than have the other haredi parties. For one,Yosef was an employee of the state in his position as Chief Sephardic Rabbi during the 1970s, and he still wears the robe of this office in public appearances. Secondly, Shas's supporters are not easily categorized by the traditional oppositions that have been inherited from debates within the Ashkenazi community. For example, as a group, they are not committed to the dichotomy of "redemption" and "exile" which has driven many of the distinctions between "Zionist" and "non-Zionist" ideologies (see Ravitsky 1989, 1990). In Shas circles one may hear a variety of responses to the question of whether the State of Israel is part of the messianic redemption or not, or whether people should attempt to hasten this process through non-religious means. There is simply no party line on these issues. The state is problematic because it is not run in accordance with Jewish law, but it is not illegitimate.

The argument should be made that Shas as a movement actually has more in common with the Zionist-oriented National Religious Party (Mafdal) than with the haredi Agudat Israel. In its first term the Shas leadership readily took on ministerial responsibilities—something that Aguda had resisted for forty years because of reservations over the legitimacy of the state. Also, while the Aguda has provided a leadership trained in the elite of Lithuanian yeshivot, most of the Shas rank and file come from a traditional national-religious background. In fact, the issues that Shas has emphasized in this election campaign are similar to ones offered by the Mafdal in the 1965 elections, soon after many of these immigrants had come to the nascent state (Deshen 1970). At the time, Mafdal provided Torah scrolls and prayer books to promote the spiritual needs of the new Sephardic immigrants. They promised to build more ritual baths and synagogues, and they were proud of their yeshiva boarding schools. The Mafdal even provided separate assemblies for women and religious programs to "keep young women off the street." Mafdal politicians attacked the secular establishment for its abandonment of religious values—all just as Shas has done in 1992. With the present coalition agreements Shas has also taken over government responsibilities in Interior, Religion, and Education, the backbone of Mafdal's early institutional power structure.

The link between Mafdal a generation ago and Shas today is nicely captured in a story recorded by Deshen (1970, 166). He writes of a synagogue in the 1960s where levels of participation are rapidly declining among the new immigrants. During the weekdays it becomes harder and harder to get a minyan (quorum) for prayer, and, on the sabbath eve, traditional customs are not taken up by the participants. Whereas reciting the Song of Songs had been a regular practice among Tunisian Jews prior to emigration, on the day described by Deshen only one old man has taken it upon himself to recite the passage. Frustrated at the failure of others to join in, he recites the concluding benediction in the singular rather than the plural "for the merit of the Song of Songs that I have read and that I have studied . . . " In the story told by Deri, set thirty years later, the young boy shocks his father by reciting from the Song of Songs at the sabbath evening service. The dynamic has come full circle and the father who tried too hard to forget the ways of his father is brought back to them through his son. This is what Shas plays on, the sense of loss that the more secular present represents and a sentimentality for the renewal of that important connection between generations.

VII. Conclusion

The Sephardic Torah Guardians is a "revitalization movement" (Wallace 1956; Ben-Rafael and Sharot 1991). It is the attempt of individuals marginalized both economically and culturally by a dominant society to reassert certain values and forge a more coherent and meaningful lifestyle. The revitalization has been constructed through images and "image evoking or image related activities" (Fernandez 1982, 418). The prison walls are juxtaposed with Sephardic students studying Torah, creating a powerful opposition that effectively links a corrupted past with the promise of a rich future. A similar effect was created in the stories of the little boy lighting the sabbath candles with his mother, or asking his father to accompany him to synagogue on the sabbath morning. The parents who had become distanced from their parents would return again through their children. Images of "sages" blessing huge assemblies, previously distanced from religious practice, but not belief, also created a sense of religious and ethnic continuity with a golden past. These images offered meaning and direction for the project of institutionalization which stands as Shas's core goal. Its leaders have skillfully positioned themselves vis-à-vis the state in order to maximize government funding and build an institutional power base, thus concretizing revitalization goals.

Shas is also a "nativistic" movement (Linton 1943) with its stress on traditional values set in opposition to those of the dominant (Ashkenazi) society. Shas has emphasized "particular elements of culture" that have come to be symbols of nativistic authenticity and historical authority, rather than attempting to recreate the exact situation of the past. In this sense, Shas has been innovative, forging a generic Sephardic identity, which even mixes Ashkenazi styles, rather than arguing for a return to particularistic regional customs. The values and traditions that Shas has utilized to build a more general Sephardic identity play on the common experiences of these many constituent ethnicities vis-à-vis the dominant Ashkenazi "other."

The notion of religious "movement" is not so much an analytic category as it is an internal metaphor (Fernandez 1979; Kaplan 1990). Fernandez identifies three types of "movement" in the study of religious groups: analytic, moral, and architectonic. The analytic metaphor is the one that we impose as researchers trying to make sense of the phenomenon before us. Kaplan warns against use of the term as a generic category of analysis. She argues that discussions of religious movement in much of the anthropological literature has promoted an image of "unnatural," or marked, development in light of other "natural" processes of social change. As analysts we should be more concerned with representing movement in the terms of the natives' values, Kaplan suggests.

Following Fernandez and Kaplan, I underscore moral and architectonic (spatial) metaphors of movement that are internal to the values of the people themselves. Realized in symbols, stories, and prayers, the "movement" was imagined and given concrete form in physical, moral, and political realms of experience. It helped to link individuals who themselves were embarking on a personal journey of self-transformation in teshuva (moral movement) with a wider group of individuals and families, all "moving" together. Moreover, an architectonic (spatial) sense of movement, was given form in images of the religious leaders being shuttled from one part of the country to another, spreading their word of truth and blessing. Movement imagery provided the symbolic link among individuals around the country—helping to make local experience national in scope. Finally, in the context of Israeli political culture, Shas's self-appellation of "movement" is part of an effort to adopt "the terms and categories" of the dominant culture "so as to resist them" (Kaplan 1990, 14). Goldberg explains: "there is hardly an image more embedded in labor Zionist rhetoric than 'movement' (t'nuah)." 29 To appropriate the notion of "movement" and to use it to build an institutional force on par with the early influence of these other two pioneering groups is to symbolically transform Shas into a pioneering movement with its roots fundamentally placed in the legitimacy of the contemporary Israeli state.

Finally, as an internal metaphor, Shas's self-conceptualization as a "religious movement" largely prescribed the "political" goals of the organization and its positioning vis-à-vis possible government coalitions. The movement, as imagined, was given direction in terms of its own particular "logic" (Comaroff 1985; Lan 1985). Shas's direction necessitated a successful capture of state power and influence in the interest of furthering their educational goals. To have shied away from the possible coalition with Labor, as both Mafdal and Aguda had done because of ideological reasons, would have flown in the face of Shas's mandate for government participation. In the case of Shas, the ideological distinctions that had proved so divisive to the Ashkenazi parties over the years—questions over the importance of the land of Israel, or the legitimacy of the secular state—were secondary to a party built upon the logic of "religious movement" and "Sephardic unity." For Shas, the only political course that made sense was the one that would bring it the greatest amount of responsibility, and thus influence, in the new government. That is what they achieved in their coalition with Labor.

The movement has received a great push forward with the recent election results and coalition agreement. Ovadia Yosef has skillfully maneuvered his party into the core institutions responsible for funding religious life in the state. Shas has the opportunity to become a weighty institutional force in the coming years. However, at the time of press, Arye Deri has resigned his post at the Interior Ministry and has been indicted on charges of receiving bribes, fraud, falsification of corporate documents, and violating the public trust. Deri welcomes the coming court proceedings as a chance to vindicate himself after "having been tried and convicted in the press over the past three years." Whether Deri will ultimately be exonerated, or whether the movement can function in his absence, are just two of the contingencies that are sure to effect Shas's future as a religious movement.

Official Shas Party Website

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Further Reading on the Shas Party

Redefining Religious Zionism: Shas' Ethno-Politics by Aaron Willis

The Synagogue as Civil Society, or How We Can Understand the Shas Party by Omar Kamil

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and his "Culture War" in Israel by Omar Kamil


1. Ovadia Yosef argues that time off from Torah study was acceptable to help Shas's "sacred" effort. He even went so far as to allow individuals to sell their teffillin (phylacteries), a highly symbolic move, if it meant that it could provide the bus fare to the polling station. (However, this was permissible only if you had access to a neighbor's teffillin for the next days).

2. Haredi Shas supporters often made reference to their treatment as somehow less than the Arabs. They liked to point out that even the Arabs got funding for their own school system or for gas masks during the Gulf War (they charge that the state was unwilling to provide special masks for the beards of religious men.)

3. Deri quotes a number that would equal eighty-four hundred families per year—probably an exaggeration, and no "official" numbers exist to substantiate him. However, anyone who rides a public intercity bus in Israel can clearly "see" the numbers of Middle Eastern Jews, clad in dark suites, beards, and fedora hoats, growing noticeably over the past ten years.

4. Ma'ariv, 8 January 1993.

5. Election Law 122.6, noted in Ha'aretz, 1 June 1992.

6. Kaduri is known for his power of "practical kabbalah," the manipulation of worldly forces through esoteric knowledge and ritual.

7. While I admit distinguishing the "religious" from the "political" is a dubious business, the point here is made for emphasis. Shas is not just about "politics."

8. Aviad (1983) notes the connection between religious return and enhanced ethnic identification. The identities are conjoined in a "homecoming metaphor."

9. Ha'aretz, 14 June 1992.

10. It is ironic that Peretz played such a public role in the United Torah campaign. After the dismal election results Peretz was forced to resign his position to an Ashkenazi loyal to Shach. He went out complaining of "another instance of discrimination against the Sephardic community."

11. Shas began the 1988 government with six representatives. When Peretz left in 1990 he took his seat with him. Going into the 1992 elections Shas had control of only five Knesset seats.

12. Quoted in Friedman 1991; 1992 figures are quoted in Ha'aretz, 29 June 1992.

13. Ha'aretz, 23 June 1992.

14. Ha'aretz, 25 June 1992.

15. Yediot Aharonot, 26 June 1992. The first Knesset seat was approximately forty thousand votes, but those thereafter went for twenty thousand each. The Arabs' thirteen thousand votes were thus a helpful boost to Shas's Knesset presence.

16. Ma'ariv, 19 June 1992.

17. Yediot Aharonot, 26 June 1992.

18. Ha'aretz, 25 June 1992.

19. Ha'aretz, 25 June 1992. Deri's observation is based on the argument that Ezran, Pinchasi, and Peretz were loyal to Shach, but now Yosef controls all six seats with Shach's influence heavily diminished.

20. Ha'aretz, 24 June 1992.

21. The Arab parties are not usually asked to be part of the government.

22. Pinchasi later also received a deputy portfolio in the Finance Ministry.

23. Aloni, in an interview shortly after she took over the Education Ministry, set as her aim "to teach children to question their parents," a thought that is anathema to the haredi sensibilities.

24. Ma'ariv, 17 July 1992.

25. Yediot Aharonot, 17 July 1992.

26. Ovadia Yosef's grandchildren were threatened in their elite Lithuanian day school, and parents complained that they didn't want their children sitting next to the descendants of "he who went against Rav Shach."

27. Ma'ariv, 25 June 1992. It is interesting to note that the enthusiast repeated the exact words of the Shas campaign slogan.

28. Ha'aretz, 26 June 1992.

29. Personal Bitnet communication, 11 November 1992.


Aviad, J. 1983. Return To Judaism: Religious Renewal in Israel, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ben-Rafael, E. and Sharot, S. 1991. Ethnicity, Religion and Class in Israeli Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Comaroff, J. 1985. Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance: The Culture and History of a South African People. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Deshen, S. 1970. Immigrant Voters Israel. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Fernandez, J. 1979. "On the Notion of Religious Movement." Social Research, 36-62.

———. 1982. Bwiti: An Ethnography of the Religious Imagination in Africa. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Friedman, M. 1991. The Haredi Society: Sources, Trends, and Processes (in Hebrew). Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

Heilman, S. 1990. 'The Orthodox, the Ultra-Orthodox, and the Elections for the Twelfth Knesset." In The Elections in Israel—1988, ed. A. Arian and M. Shamir. Boulder: Westview Press.

Kaplan, M. 1990. "Meaning, Agency and Colonial History: Navosavkadua and the Tuka Movement in Fiji." American Ethnologist 17, no. 1 (February) 3-22.

Lan, D. 1985. Guns and Rain: Guerillas and Spirit Mediums in Zimbabwe. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Linton, R. 1943. "Nativistic Movements." American Anthropologist 45: 230-40.

Ravitsky, A 1989. "Exile in the Holy Land: The Dilemma of Haredi Jewry." In Israel: State and Society, 1948-1988, ed. P. Medding. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. 1990. "Religious Radicalism and Political Messianism in Israel." In Religious Radicalism and Politics in the Middle East., ed. E. Sivan and M. Friedman. Albany: SUNY Press.

Wallace, A. 1956. "Revitalization Movements." American Anthropologist 58 (April): 264-81.

Willis, A. 1992. "Redefining Religious Zionism: Shas' Ethno-Politics." Israel Studies Bulletin, 8, no. 2 (fall) 1-2.

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