Saturday, July 17, 2010
How the mighty have fallen
Shas’s local faction is deteriorating steadily.
In the summer of 1983 Nissim Ze’ev, a wellknown local Sephardi rabbi, cofounded a nonprofit organization called the Association of Sephardi Torah Keepers, whose aim was to establish educational and cultural institutions adapted to the character of Sephardi Jews who observed a strict religious way of life. Ze’ev, who had already established Navat Israel, a large institution for Sephardi girls, managed to bring together to the association’s inauguration ceremony the leading figures of the Jerusalem Sephardi haredi community for a conference on these issues, headed by former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef. One of the most important outcomes of this gathering was the decision to establish a party of representatives to run in the city council elections. As president of the organization, Ze’ev received the blessings of Yosef, and a few months later he presided over a party of Sephardi haredim on the city council. And thus Shas was born.
“Suddenly we met different haredim,” recalls Amos Mar-Haim, then deputy mayor to Teddy Kollek. “We were used to the hassidim and the Litvaks, the Ashkenazi leadership who were very strict, even radical – but the guys from Shas were much more tolerant, open, substantially less extreme in their views and opinions. Nissim Ze’ev was very prominent, very dominant, and the two other members – Shas obtained three mandates in the 1983 Jerusalem elections – always did what he wanted. Their main interest was education. They wanted schools and institutions for their children that were separate from the haredi Ashkenazi stream,” says Mar-Haim, though that does not negate their right to study in any institution.
Within less than a year, the new political phenomenon grew to such an extent that it became a nationwide movement. Almost overnight, Shas developed from a local party aimed at solving a few issues that offended Sephardi pride to a rising political power. In 1984, in the party’s first participation in the general elections, it obtained four seats. The prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Shamir, who was one of the first to understand what that meant, was recorded on camera as saying to a member of another party, “But they have four seats. We’ll have to take them into account from now on.”
For years, the Jerusalem city council was considered a stronghold of the Shas movement, and it was the model on which the political movement based itself to recreate the same success. Today, there is hardly a city council in the country that doesn’t have its own local Shas representative, including the bastion of secularism, Tel Aviv.
“I was still single then,” recalls Eli Simhayof, one of the leading figures of Shas today. “I remember very well the atmosphere when we got the results of the elections for the city council. It was like a miracle happening before our eyes. It was thrilling. The feeling was that at last we could hold our heads high. We had gained our independence. We were no longer inferior and disregarded by our brethren the Ashkenazim. It’s hard to describe, but it was a very festive atmosphere.
We were happy, and I think we were also very naïve.”
Now, 27 years later, the four members (compared to five under mayor Uri Lupolianski) of Shas on the city council are becoming ever less relevant. Shlomi Attias, the former leader of the party, left the city council recently to go out and earn a living. Since he had not been given the position of deputy mayor (with its NIS 40,000 salary), the father of 12 children decided to leave politics and start a career. Today, he is the director of the Company for the Reconstruction and the Development of the Jewish Quarter and confirmed to In Jerusalem that he has no intentions of going back into politics.
Officially, no one dared to criticize him. “How would anyone expect a father of 12 to forgo a decent salary?” says Attias. “I have a family and an obligation toward my children first.”
NEVERTHELESS, THERE is a sense among some of the employees and former assistants of Shas members at the municipality that Attias’s departure is just the first brick coming loose from the movement’s structure, heralding its demise.
Simhayof, a longtime rival of Attias’s as head of the party, was recently released from police arrest following his suspected involvement in the Holyland scandal.
But he has also found himself a job. Once the powerful president of the prestigious finance committee at city hall, Simhayof is now head of the haredi town of Tel Zion.
“For someone like him, who has the virus of politics deep in his veins, this is a real punishment,” remarked a veteran city council member from another party.
The third member of Shas, Shmuel Yitzhaki, who has always been the lone oppositionist in his party, never missed an opportunity to criticize his fellow members in public, especially on the issue of the Sephardi girls who are not accepted to prestigious Ashkenazi institutions. Although he is highly appreciated for his integrity and honesty, Yitzhaki is not regarded as the person who could bring Shas back to its former glory. Aware of the delicate situation of his party on the city council, he said this week that the deterioration is the result of neglecting the people’s needs. “I have always been very careful not to forgetwhat my mission is – to serve the modest and the poor and, above all, to support the families whose daughters are not accepted to Ashkenazi institutions year after year.”
As for the new city council member, David Michaeli, nobody knows for the moment if he has the capacity to develop into a leader as Eli Yishai did before him when he was a city council member.
The general feeling at Kikar Safra is that while the Ashkenazi haredim managed to maintain quite a few of their advantages despite MK Meir Porush’s failure to win the election, something turned sour for the Shas party on the city council. “It was pathetic to see them moving their stuff from the main building to the small and modest offices of Building 4, where the city council members who are not on salary are located,” said one municipal employee. In fact, it took the Shasniks a while to realize that nobody needed them anymore in Mayor Nir Barkat’s administration.
“What is really painful is the realization that our failure, which is also at a great personal cost [in loss of deputy mayorships], is in fact much more crucial in its public cost,” explained a Shas member who did not want to be identified. “The fact that we know that it was in our hands, that it could have been very different, adds to the pain.”
What he meant is that in the mayoral election of November 2009, Barkat, who was running against haredi candidate Meir Porush, tried to win Shas over to his side. “Barkat met with us and asked us to support him, promising full cooperation in return. We know now, as we knew then, that he is a man of integrity and would have honored his agreement. But that meant working independently, against the haredi candidate. It turned out that Shas, the party that was created to raise the honor and independence of the Sephardim, could not dare to act according to its own interests. The rabbis refused to accept the agreement, and the rest is history. Porush lost, but the Ashkenazi haredim, who lost one seat but had a total of eight seats, entered into a very generous arrangement with Barkat, leaving us way behind.”
As for Barkat, he found a strong ally in the religious Zionists of Habayit Hayehudi. Today, their leader David Hadari is deputy mayor and president of the Finance Committee.
As a result, the Shas representatives have not yet yielded a deputy mayor, and even the committees over which they preside are far from being the most influential.
Here is an example of how the exclusion of Shas from the inner sphere of influence and important decision-making has had its effects. A Beit Ya’acov school in Ramot, which holds 1,700 girls – among them a large number of Sephardim – has long been suffering from poor conditions, such as caravans instead of concrete buildings and a gross lack of facilities. Until two years ago, there was a tacit understanding that as soon as the secular Yoni Netanyahu school was vacated, the building would be handed over to Beit Ya’acov. But today, the strong partner at Kikar Safra is no longer on the haredi side, and certainly not Shas.
“As a result, the Netanyahu school was given to the Rapopport school, despite the fact that it also serves students who don’t live in the neighborhood, which belongs to the religious Zionist stream, the new allies of the mayor,” says the city council member.
On the issue of the segregation of Sephardi girls in Ashkenazi institutions, 27 years of being on the city council has not succeeded in putting an end to the situation. According to Yitzhaki, he hasthe names of 20 girls who are still not registered for first grade in the coming school year “just because they are Sephardi.” Yitzhaki, who has always been deeply committed to the issue, was the only Shas member to openly accuse his fellow party members of betraying the Sephardi girls for the sake of politics.
FOR YEARS Nathalie Lestreger was the closest assistant to Shas founder Nissim Ze’ev, who today is an MK. “Whoever worked at the municipality at the time will remember the convivial atmosphere that prevailed in his office,” she recalls. “Members of all the parties – Left and secular, as well as religious or haredi Ashkenazim – would start their day at the municipality by passing through Ze’ev’s office, eating burekas he would bring from home.”
When Lestreger came on the scene in 1989, still in the days of Teddy Kollek, Shas was already part of the landscape of the municipality. “His [Ze’ev’s] first assistant was a shy young man named Eli Yishai, who also became a city council member. But when Shas became more involved on the national level and Aryeh Deri became the political leader, Yishai quickly understood that it would be better for him to stick to Deri, and he left.
I think what characterized Ze’ev the most was his deep sense of hesed [lovingkindness]. He certainly has political savvy, but he was really after doing good and helping people,” she says.
“There is a huge difference between his real personality and his image in the public or in the media. He has had quite a few bold expressions, that’s true, but he is also the kind of man anyone could call at any time of the day or night to ask for help and never be turned down – religious, secular, Jews and Arabs alike.”
Lestreger has not been at the municipality or close to Shas for a long time. Today she is a member of the Conservative movement and a rabbinical student at the Schechter Institute – not exactly the typical surroundings of Nissim Ze’ev. Yet she recalls vividly the atmosphere among the party members in her day.
“The phenomenon called Shas could not have been born anywhere else but in Jerusalem. Here was the most natural soil for it: Sephardi Jews from all over the world, most of them modest people who kept their traditions alive. They were close to the Ashkenazi haredim, studied at their institutions, yet suffered from disdain and experienced the pain of seeing their traditions disregarded. What’s more, all the great rabbis of this community were here, especially Ovadia Yosef. Shas had to be created here.”
“They [the members of Shas] all had great respect for Teddy Kollek,” adds Mar-Haim. “But the most important thing was that we could really rely on them. They would never use threats as a weapon, never set fire in the streets to obtain what they wanted.
They always used the technique of persuasion, negotiations. It was a real change compared to what we had to face with the Ashkenazi haredim. I think what characterized them most was their commitment to their communities – hesed, support, community interests. They were very much aware of the situation of their peers, tried very hard to bring some relief, some improvement, especially in the education issues.
“If today, somehow, there is still an understanding that the north of the city will largely be in haredi hands and the south-ern part will stay open, secular and pluralistic – well, that is an achievement we should thank Shas for. They were always realistic, pragmatic. I think they were good partners.
If they had been in charge of things here, many things would look much calmer and less radical today.”
As for the changes that have led to Shas’s decline, Mar-Haim believes it is a general process – as with the Likud, which has always been a local strong movement and has only one representative on the city council (Elisha Peleg), and what happened with Labor, whose representative Hilik Bar is a member of Barkat’s party.
According to Arye Dayan, a journalist who wrote a book about Shas, the trend is not surprising. “The fact that Shas was created first on the local level doesn’t mean it had to stay there. I believe that the decline of Shas is more representative of the decline of all the political parties in Israel today,” he says.
He adds that in his view, the party had roughly three stages. “First as a group created to take care of the Sephardi interests within the Ashkenazi hegemony; then the period of Aryeh Deri, who led a bold struggle against that hegemony; and now, again, at least for the moment, back to the basics of the first period,” he says.
“Then it is clear why the leaders of Shas, in front of the Ashkenazi rabbis and leadership and with the High Court of Justice in the background, couldn’t do anything but remain silent in the Emmanuel case and dare not openly criticize the discrimination against the Sephardi girls,” he continues, referring to the recent struggle against the segregation of Sephardi girls in the Beit Ya’acov school there.
When all is said and done, the consensus is that if and when Aryeh Deri decides to make a comeback, everything will change. “Those who gave in and left, and those who lost hope will all come back and restore Shas to its former splendor,” say many Shasniks, including at least one MK who prefers to remain silent for the moment.
Dayan also believes that if Deri decides to return to political life, it will have a tremendous effect on the situation of Shas, “but I’m not sure that it will change much on the city council.”
For the moment, Simhayof is waiting for the mayor to grant him the title – and the salary – of deputy mayor. Rumors in the corridors of Kikar Safra have it that the decision has already been made but the timing is problematic. Simhayof has been released after much interrogation, which so far has proven nothing against him, but the file is still not closed. Once that is behind him – and many believe it won’t take long – things might improve, and the Shas electorate will once again have somewhere to register their grievances.