Shas and the Struggle for Sephardic Humanism


An interview with Dr. Zvi Zohar reveals the origins and character of Israel's third-largest party.

by Jordan Elgrably


© The Levantine Project, All Rights Reserved
     Israel's political landscape has, over the past decade, been transmogrified by the growing strength of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party Shas (Sephardic Torah Guardians).  But the conviction and incarceration on September 3 of party leader Aryeh Deri, on charges of corruption, has only fortified Shas' power among an electorate of largely disenfranchised Middle Eastern Jews.  From the gates of Maasiyahu Prison, Deri called for a Sephardic "revolution," and many in Israel view his prosecution and imprisonment as further evidence of continuing anti-Sephardi bias.

     While Deri has been removed from the battleground, Shas currently holds 17 seats in the Knesset, just behind Likud. The American Jewish community, which had not previously taken much notice of Sephardic Jewry, has been shaken by the Shas phenomenon and is looking for explication.  On September 20, Hebrew Union College invited Dr. Zvi Zohar, one of Israelís most astute observers of the socio-political scene, to give a lecture in Los Angeles, on what many now perceive to be a permanent feature of Israeli politics.

     A fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where he heads the Center for the Study of Halakha, Zohar has made Sephardic religious tradition a core focus of his numerous books and essays.  (HUC has tapped the scholar to consult on a new core Sephardic curriculum project, funded by a grant from the Maurice Amado Foundation, which will focus on major humanist thinkers of the classic and contemporary age.) Dr. Zohar, who is himself of Ashkenazi origin yet leads an observant life according to Sephardi minhag, argues that Shas is not a faithful reflection of the best this tradition has to offer.  "The leaders and hardcore cadre of Shas have very little do with Sephardi culture and tradition," he says.  "They have a strong Sephardi ethnic consciousness, but their religious culture and traditions reflect a deep assimilation into the Haredi/Ashkenazi yeshiva world." 

     Faced with poverty, uncertain educational prospects in the public sector, and in some cases crime-ridden neighborhoods, Mizrahi parents sent their children into the largely foreign world of Ashkenazi orthodoxy. "They went to Agudath Yisrael schools and to Agudath yeshivot," Zohar says. "However, they felt that within that world, there was ethnic discrimination against them which led them to believe that they were never going to be able to get their fair share in that world."

     Peter Hirschberg, an Israeli journalist, confirms this when he argues that, "The Sephardim were never welcomed wholeheartedly in the Ashkenazi yeshivas.  They were patronized and treated as second-classs citizens.  Their rabbis were not afforded the same status as their Ashkenazi counterparts; ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim would never marry Sephardim; and while the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox Agudath Yisrael enjoyed the electoral support of these Sephardim, it refused to give them any place in its political leadership."

     Shas was the dark horse in the 1984 elections.  Led by Aryeh Deri, then a 25-year-old yeshiva graduate, under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the new party, much to its own surprise, won four seats in the Knesset.  From the start, notes Zohar, the call for Torah observance and pride in Middle Eastern Jewish roots reached the ears and hearts of Jews who had arrived from countries like Morocco, Iraq, and Yemen, and who felt unacknowleged in Israelís history books. 

     Explains Zohar, "Sephardi-Oriental Jews began to feel that the reason for the cultural degradation they endured happened to them because they were not being true to their own selves and to their own traditions.  They looked to their rabbis, who continued to symbolize and embody authentic Sephardi-Oriental life as it was lived in the old country, as the natural leaders of this movement."

     Zohar points out, however, that not all Shas voters are Orthodox in the strange Haredi/Sephardi black-hat mold, which has become the Shas image to the outside. They are, instead, Middle Eastern Jews who donít study in yeshivas, who serve in the army and work throughout Israeli society, yet continue to live according to the traditional rhythms of life experienced by their parents and grandparents in North Africa and the Middle East. 

     Ironically, Shas was established with the patronage of Rabbi Eliezer Schach, leader of the non-Hasidic or Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox yeshiva world, and the young Aryeh Deri was something of a Schach protégé.  But as Shasí power grew, it strained their relationship.  During the 1992 national elections, says Zohar, things fell apart. "At a mass rally, in the presence of Ovadia Yosef, Reb Schach said 'our Sephardic brethren are not yet ready for Torah leadership.'"  The remark worked to the partyís benefit, handily securing Shas six seats in the Knesset.

     During his talk at L.A.ís Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Zohar attempted to clarify many of the myths that have grown up around the Shas phenomenon. While the movement is known to be anti-Arab and anti-peace, Shas leaders have a history of pragmatism.  Deri originally supported the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, and Rabbi Yosef established that land could be traded for peace as far back as 1980. He reiterated this position many times in intervening years, and suggested that Middle Eastern Jews be leaders in the peace talks because they originate in Arab/Muslim cultures.  Today, Shas commands 19% of the vote in the Knesset, but Zohar believes that the party does not continously support "land for peace" trade-offs, and he says that the Shas electorate is internally conflicted on the peace process, such that there is no uniformly accepted position. 

     While nearly 50% of Israelís population is Sephardi/Mizrahi in origin, Zohar surmises that less than half vote for Shas.  "Itís clear that there is a positive correlation between poverty and marginality and geographic support for Shas," Zohar says, citing a recent report.  "However, there are people of Mizrahi or Oriental descent who are prominent activists in other political groups which are not ethnically based.  Moshe Katsav, the newly-elected president of Israel, is an example.  He was born in Iran, is religiously observant, supports Oriental rabbis, but he belongs to the Likud party."

     Other Sephardi/Mizrahi voters in Israel support Avodah, Meretz and Likud over Shas, Zohar notes. And there are Mizrahi movements which are secular and progressive in nature, the best-known among them being HaKeshet, the Rainbow Coalition. One former HaKeshet activist, Sami Shalom Chetrit, who is well-known as a poet and columnist, says that even now, the Shas "revolution" still doesnít have great "influence on the government agenda." However, Chetrit adds, "Shas is the only Mizrahi political alternative today"óone which appears to worry some Ashkenazim enough to begin thinking of packing their bags.  "There is a group already talking about establishing a European Jewish colony outside of the Middle East," says Chetrit. "They are scared and in a panic. I believe that itís going to end in a civil war."

      Zohar is less convinced that Israel will fragment into internal chaos to the point of physical violence. "I donít think weíre going to see a civil war in Israel [among Jews]," he counters. He looks to the core problem, which is the disparity between original Sephardic culture and its current Israeli variation. "Many people, when they think of Sephardi-Oriental culture, think of music and folkloric aspects, and they are not aware of the intellectual and spiritual creativity by both the classic and contemporary leadership."

      What characterizes the Sephardi-Oriental religious tradition, which Zohar has been studying for the past twenty years, is an abiding humanism.  Rabbis in this tradition often take the view that Torah-based Judaism is rooted in innovation and reinterpretation, rather than a fixed corpus of normative directives.  From classic figures like Moses Maimonides, Judah Halevi, Moses ibn Ezra and Solomon ibn Gabirol, to modern and contemporary rabbis such as David Nieto, Elijah Benamozegh, Aharon ben Shimon, Eliyyahu Hazzan, Yitzhak Dayyan, Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uzziel and Hayyim David HaLevi, this tradition provides a method for integrating religious praxis organically with secular modern life.

     Says David Shasha, a writer and activist based in Brooklynís observant Syrian Jewish community, "Unlike the various strains of Orthodox Judaism, our tradition eschews the tensions of the profane and the sacred, as well as the binarisms found in todayís Ashkenazi variants.  According to the model which took root in the Levant over many centuries," Shasha adds, "Judaism is our heritage but does not function in a vacuum; rabbis, scholars and poets sought engagement with the greatest thought available.  This translated into a culture that evolved an organic Judiasm, which saw itself as a vital partner in the promulgation of wisdom and knowledge in the world."

     The long tradition of Sephardi/Mizrahi humanism does not characterize, unfortunately, the Shas party leadership, which tilts toward fundamentalism.  But after all, says Zohar, "The whole breakdown into Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, Haredi, Reconstructionist and all of that is something which, to my mind, primarily reflects the European and North American experience, and is not the one Sephardim dealt with.

      "The Sephardim have the notion that community should pre-empt ideology; you should not, because of your ideology and belief, break apart the unity of the community; and itís better to have a community which is internally diverse than it is to have several communities which are internally consistent."

     During a recent class Zohar asked his students, rhetorically, what Jews gain from denominations. His answer: "Nothing. We gain that we know who not to listen to, and who to despise, without even hearing what they have to say."

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Jordan Elgrably is a Los Angeles-based writer and cofounder of Ivri-NASAWI. 

The Levantine Project is a new syndication service of articles, essays, art and photography available through Ivri-NASAWI. 


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