Questioning the Sustainability of Shas

| January 13, 2010 | 0 Comments

Shas: A Look at Israel’s Political Party and Its Role in the Future Development of the State


The modern state of Israel is as much a nexus of paradox as it is a homeland for Jews. It is a state born from a movement that had been so long defined by religious messianic hope, but was only realized through secular aspirations for political sovereignty. This paradox lies at the very core of Israel’s national character, and is as rancorous as it is fundamental.

Another chief internal problem however, has been the relationship between Ashkenazim and Sephardim-Mizrahim[1]. Though the ballad of ethnic correlation to socio-economic disparity is anything but novel, the story of Shas, the Sephardic-Mizrahi ethno-religious political party and social movement, provides a painfully acute illustration of the extent to which Zionism, the Jewish state, and Jewish unity are romanticized. Zionism was not just about the establishment of a Jewish state; it was no less a psychological and sociological revolution intended to destroy the Jewish Diaspora mentality of helplessness and dependence. With respect to the latter, Shas has thus far failed.

Since it invaded the Israeli political scene in 1984, Shas has nourished both the corporeal and spiritual needs of its long neglected Sephardic-Mizrahi constituency with an extensive network of social services. However, the funding for these programs was not accumulated by its members, wealthy donors, nor by the support of indoctrinated sectors of industry.  It was purchased by the state with votes.

While the auspice of religious revivalism has broadened Shas’ constituent base across ethnic lines, it has relied far too heavily upon the relationship between poverty and piety, humiliation and mobilization, and not enough on the importance of a secular education in the reality of a secular state. Not unlike the Jewish state in its founding years, Shas has been preoccupied with its immediate existential concerns, and has neglected its long term development and the issue of its sustainability.

In the founding years of the state (1947-49), political expedience was the modus operandi and the national goal was to increase immigration; not surprisingly, more thought was given to how this would be accomplished rather than what to do with the new population once it was accomplished. The initial immigration and absorption policies (set by Ben-Gurion’s MAPAI, the Israeli labor party) had established fourth a plan for receiving 150,000 immigrants within the two years, which would follow the Declaration of Independence.  Yet, within three years the 100,000 Jews that had arrived in six months following Independence were joined by 400,000 immigrants many of whom were not Ashkenazi: 164,787 from Asia and 77, 083 from North Africa, Egypt and Libya.[2] The largest group of Mizrahi Jews came from Morocco, most of which were uneducated and destitute[3].

This sparked an ongoing debate began on the issue of regulation immigration, but policy was not built around concern for the situations faced by various Jewish communities in Diaspora, but on concern for the “quality” of the human resources, how they might best be used by the state, and by the state’s financial concerns about providing for immigrants.[4] The categorization of the quality of human materials was anything but romantic. To illustrate:

“..The Yugoslavs, Bulgarians and Czechs are of a high cultural level. Productive and healthy…There is among them a high percentage of trained people, including intellectuals and members of the liberal professions….North Africans: Mostly destitute, hot-tempered, unorganized and nationalistic…Few have any skills. Have difficulties learning…Easily influenced. Of low cultural and social level…Yemenites: mostly destitute…Work is their main purpose in life. Quick-witted and unorganized.”[5]

“Preservation of the country’s cultural level demands a flow of immigration from the West, and not only from the backward Levantine countries”[6]

Within the period from 1948-1956, Israel absorbed 2 million Jews from Arabic speaking countries early on, and the process of integration for these highly traditionalist/religious Eastern Jews into a fiercely socialist/secular society was, at the very least, difficult for all parties and painful for some.  Even those who were artisans who found their skills either unappreciated or unneeded, in which case a question surfaces on how many proud men from highly traditionalist cultures were reduced to welfare recipients before their wives and children?

This first generation of Mizrahi Jewish immigrants would forever remain ethnically conscious in a fundamentally different way than successive generations of Mizrahi Jews. Early child hood experiences rendered this entire segment of the ethnic population unable to outlive the shame of their “enculturation” experience; passing on to successive generations a powerful sense of ethnic discomfort. Many of the Mizrahi Jews, especially the Moroccans who arrived in Israel had indeed very low levels of secular education.

These late comers to Israeli society lacked the sophisticated institutional structure boasted by Ashkenazim prior to statehood. A majority of the Arab countries from which Mizrahi immigrants came were highly authoritarian in their regime and cultures. The Jews from these countries had a profound respect for authority and exhibited a political culture of fearful obedience as they lacked a tradition of contrary politics. Land in Israel is owned by the state, and institutionalized discrimination is especially problematic for Eastern Jews because they are attempting to penetrate a dominated by European Jews that discriminate against them from both extremes of Israeli society.

At any rate, many of these immigrants made their lives as manual laborer’s, which was made all the more difficult by the fact that Israel was a poor country limited in its ability to upgrade the newcomer’s standard of living – though that is not to suggest that the allocation of funding and housing was free from any bias. Land permits and subsidies were all controlled by a secular state government that took, at the very least, a condescending attitude towards Eastern Jewish immigrants. Ben-Gurion himself said:

“The ancient spirit left the Jews of the East and their role in the Jewish nation receded or disappeared entirely. In the past few hundred years the Jews of Europe have led the nation, in both quantity and quality[7].”

The overwhelming majority of secular Ashkenazim (under Ben-Gurion’s MAPAI which would continue to serve as the vanguard for secular Israelis as the Labor Party) scorned the religious traditionalism that largely typified Eastern Jews.  However, they likewise experience discrimination and contempt from those camped in the other extreme of Israeli society. Orthodox Ashkenazim had a strong dislike for what they perceived to be lackadaisical ritual practices of Eastern Jews, and further diminished an already damaged sense of cultural pride for Eastern Jews. Ashkenazi religious practice was far more ritually oriented than Sephardic Judaism, and as such their religious institutions displayed a sort of ritualistic chauvinism and dislike for those that didn’t comply with the authoritative rulings of their rabbis. These sentiments which were never in short supply of political expression:

“In 1973 the Sephardim accounted for 51 percent of the population, but for only 10 percent of the MK’s…The state, using wide-ranging powers over physical planning, had determined both the crowded housing conditions of the Sephardi families and also the gentrification of adjacent non-Sephardi neighborhoods: their apartments were small and they could not afford to buy them so they remained dependant on the state for support[8].”

These Mizrahim suffered the same limitations of all lower class peoples who are reduced to subsidence living: they don’t have the leisure to be revolutionaries. None of the really important societal channels were open to allow them to rise to positions of prominence; they had no capital and most could only advance so far in Ashkenazi academic institutions.

The late 1960’s saw the emergence of several Sephardi youth movements (the secular Black Panthers, ‘Ohalim’) that took a stand against Ashkenazi “exploitation”, but the quality of their human resources, their organizational level and conduct amounted them to little more than powerless grassroots organizations that on occasion acted like “social bandits”[9].

By the late 1970’s however, several of these Mizrahi grassroots groups had coordinated to gain a single seat in the Knesset, and by 1977 the Sephardi national vote had coordinated against the Labour party that had abused them for so long, and broke the hold on power they had enjoyed since the founding of the state.

The early 80’s saw several failed attempts to coordinate the Serphardi-Mizrahi political potential, but it was not until 1984, that Shas was formed, gaining four seats in the Knesset under the leadership of Ovadia Yosef and Arieh Deri.

Accordingly, we may say that Shas may be said to have developed as a grassroots response to the socioeconomic differences between Sephardim vs. Ashkenazim, and as a response to tremendous blow dealt to Sephardic cultural pride during the course of enculturation into Israeli society.

Despite their late arrival to an already social order, their lack of experience in democratic politics, and their organizational limitations, Mizrahi Jews have gradually integrated into the Israeli politics and the power that Shas enjoys in building government coalitions was proven potent enough in 1990 that some note that the historic underrepresentation of Mizrahi interests is effectively over representational.[10] The gravity of the alienation of Mizrahi Jews by the once-all powerful Labor Party became clear when, rather than forming an independent Sephardic party, Mizrahi Jews overwhelmingly opted to vote for the Labor Party’s rival, Likud, helping to bring it to power.[11]

The ability of Shas to impose itself effectively into the Israeli political scene was greatly facilitated by the mistakes of the Israeli government as well as its leaders’ charisma and political cunning. These leaders were able to effectively realize the tremendous political potential inherent to such a large demographic group, and with social programming, addressed the reality of the socioeconomic problems facing Mizrahi Israelis, which provided a more tangible venue to solicit their loyalty than would an appeal to the religious frustrations and jaded collective memory of Mizrahi Jews, nearly half Israel’s population[12].

While the tensions between religious and nonreligious Israelis increase, the societal schism between these groups is begging to narrow. There are (at least) two factors to be considered in evaluating the diminishment of Shas’ ability to solicit support on a purely ethnic level: the socioeconomic gap between Sephardim and Ashkenazim continues to narrow (albeit slowly), but more importantly is the ever increasing level of intermarriage between Eastern and European Jews and its effect on blurring the lines of ethnic identity[13]. Though we may wish to take into consideration the possibility that the decline of real cultural differences increases the sensitivity and outrage towards inequity and discrimination when it occurs[14], it seems unlikely that such an effect, if it exists, is more divisive than an actual increase in socioeconomic inequity.

Shas is now able to boast a political party, and separate school system offering everything from child day care services supplementary programs for its educators, not to mention a vast host of social services and welfare programs for its constituents.[15] However there is a deep irony in the story of Shas’ institutional success: Shas is entirely depended upon the state for funding. The combination of the decrease in socioeconomic inequity between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Israelis, Shas’ overriding prioritization of its domestic agenda, and the utter dependence of that agenda on state funds, presents a serious potential challenge to the long term political relevance of Shas.

While focusing on domestic issues of direct and immediate concern to Mizrahi Jews, Shas took on a highly pragmatic identity and has remained impressively flexible in its policies towards Arabs and security issues (despite the hawkish tendencies of many Mizrahi Jews that resulted from their experience as refugees of Arab states[16]).  It fundamentally lacks a complete formal platform on the national level. Shas has also done a remarkable job of walking that highly contentious line between orthodoxy and the existence of Israel as a secular state; while Shas may openly reject the secular character of the state, they do not reject its authority. All of these are sticky issues, but in its unequivocal prioritization of its ethno-religious concerns over foreign policy platforms, Shas has effectively been able to choose when it wishes to address these issues and when it whishes to avoid them[17].

Shas has a religious agenda closely involved in the broader Baal T’shuvah phenomena; however the line between its strictly religious agenda and its social agenda is not surprisingly thin. Their education agenda is primarily religious, and finds expression within a separate school system (although its dependence upon the state requires its compliance with national educational requirements) concerned with the creation and indoctrination of Sephardic social elite.  Shas’ social agenda is concerned with narrowing the socioeconomic gaps between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews by elevating this indoctrinated elite to higher levels government in order to secure funding for its social services. This tactic has thus far proven to be highly effective because of the strong and indiscrete relationship between constituencies, the political realities of a multi-party system, ninisterial posts and the allocation of state funds: “Ministers, in certain respects, seem to treat their Ministries as quasi-fiefdoms protected by the Knesset members of their party in an eventual vote of confidence[18].”

There exists a fascinating network of intersections between the systems of fiefdoms, corporatism, enclaves, and ethno-religious loyalties in Israeli society, and Shas, due largely to the brilliance Ovadia Yosef, has very effectively capitalized on this. After serving as a chief Rabbi, Yosef, understands state functioning better than most people. He knew not only how to manipulate the greed of national parties and also on how to appoint people.

Ministerial appointments are influenced by political necessities and Shas has enough of an ethnic following to demand such positions, which facilitate the solicitation of funding for its school system and social programs. The Bal T’Shuvah movement, embraced by Shas, offers the opportunity for a new beginning in political activism and religious practice for Shas activists, all under the auspices of Sephardic cultural flowering. Shas makes the most of the relationship between poverty and religion, and by addressing both the religious and economic needs of its constituency, it secures a strong political base. Services, utility, dignity, and emotional appeal, hold Shas together. Though Shas feeds the people both their cultural egos and their bellies, their secular curriculum is so limited that in seems appropriate to say that in the context of a state, they are giving the people fish rather than teaching them how to fish.

Shas behaves like a party but operationally resembles something far closer to a socio-religious movement. Following the triumphs and tribulations of its heroes, it became a movement that appealed to the hurt collective pride of the Oriental Jews. Along side appeal however, they created a very extensive early child network of institutions that were totally subsidized, offering a free service for early child hood education; applicants were not required to be especially religious to benefit from comparable social services including cheap food and bulk-purchase cooperatives for the needy directed primarily at oriental Jews (the preponderance of which are Moroccan).

However, like any movement that champions the cause of the poor, it carries within it the seeds of its own destruction: if Shas were to not only bring socio-economic equity between Sephardim/Mizrahi/North African Jews and Ashkenazim, it would become obsolete. The organization must broaden its agenda to include a comprehensive set of policies for the governance of the country if it wishes to survive as a politically significant entity.

If Shas merely exists to secure funding for Sephardic and religious interests, it runs the risk of becoming obsolete to other social service programs. It must also improve the secular studies in its school system if it wishes to improve the socioeconomic quality of life of Sephardic Israelis, as well as better equip its loyalists to acquire and entrench themselves in positions of civil-service. While it is true that the Israeli political system favors those who use “control of Ministries to consolidate their political support through patronage rather than adopting universalistic welfare state like policies”, a strong Sephardi middle-class could climb the political ladder by merit rather than by votes and could potentially decrease Shas’ dependence upon the state for funds. True, Shas has given dignity and pride to a great many people that desperately needed it, but true dignity—that stems from a self-reliant capacity to feed your family, not piety.










[1] Rather than putting this in terms of “European” vs. “Eastern”, I will distinguish these communities as Ashkenazim being those Jews who lived in Christendom and those who lived under Muslim rule.

[2] T. Segev, 1949: The First Israelis (1986), pp. 95-96

[3] D. Lehman, B. Siebzehner, Remaking Israeli Judaism: The Challenge of Shas (2006) pp.57

[4] T. Segev, 1949: The First Israelis (1986), pp. 139

[5] Klieger report on immigration camps to Prime Minister’s Office, State Archives, Prime Minister’s Office, Division 43, 333/5

[6] T. Segev, 1949: The First Israelis (1986), pp. 157. Quoting from: Mossad files, Israel Army Archive, 14/372

[7] T. Segev, 1949: The First Israelis (1986), pp. 156

[8] D. Lehman, B. Siebzehner, Remaking Israeli Judaism: The Challenge of Shas (2006) pp.162

[9] Ibid. pp. 161

[10] Alan Dowty, The Jewish State, A Century Later (2001 ed.)., pp. 152

[11] Alan Dowty, The Jewish State, A Century Later (2001 ed.)., pp. 154

[12] Baruch Kimmerling, The Invention and Decline of Israeliness:  State, Society, and the Military.  , pp. 133

[13] D. Lehman, B. Siebzehner,: pp. 19, 162, 255

[14] Dowty, pp. 151

[15] Baruch Kimmerling, The Invention and Decline of Israeliness:  State, Society, and the Military.  , pp. 133

[16] Dowty, Pp. 151

[17] Dowty. Pp. 156

[18] D. Lehman, B. Siebzehner, Remaking Israeli Judaism: The Challenge of Shas (2006): pp. 8

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