Shas Rules

Published in The Jerusalem Post on September 21, 1997

The annual ritual of uncertainty surrounding the extension of Daylight Savings Time (DST) is becoming annoying. The Shas politicians who rule the Interior Ministry monkey around with the timing to fit one or another perceived ‘need’ of the religious community, to the detriment of the economy and all us lovers of long summer evenings.


Never mind that polls show that most Israelis, including a majority of the religious, desire an extended period of DST. No-one I’ve spoken to can quite figure out the logic of the Shas decree. To make it easier for the early-Elul selichot sayers? Go frequent Sephardic shuls at dawn and see how many people actually are affected. All they’ve done is spoil the Pesach seder eve for thousands of kids across the country. Ending the mandatory 150-day DST period in early fall, means that it’ll have to start early in spring too, and push the seder late into the evening.


Why then the regulatory mischief? Because it’s Shas’ way of reminding us who is running the country. They’re in charge – pay attention!


We might as well get used to it, because all indicators suggest that the party of ‘Sephardic Torah Guardians’ will continue to grow in size and influence. The nascent party won a surprise four seats in 1984, grew to six in 1988, and held through 1992, despite the allegations against party leader Aryeh Deri and the embezzlement scandal involving Yair Levy. Last year, Shas won ten seats in the Knesset, despite (or because of) Deri’s continuing troubles and all the other murky political episodes that Shas always seems to be smack in the middle of.


Feeding off a powerful mix of Sephardic resentment of the establishment, religious revival, respect for tradition, and a manifest network of social and educational institutions – Shas appears to be an unstoppable force in Israeli society. The Shas-sponsored school system has over 20,000 students, as many as the Aguda-sponsored Chinuch Atzmai network.


Politically, Shas is running circles around the Religious-Zionist establishment and its political patron, the National Religious Party. They’ve grabbed control of many religious councils and seats on the rabbinical court benches. Last week, outgoing Religious Affairs Minister Suissa of Shas surreptitiously slipped through the surprise appointment of former Shas MK Moshe Maya as rabbi of the Western Wall. Even Maya didn’t know in advance. (So much for better, cleaner government).


Let’s not be too jealous or overly grudging. Shas has worked hard for the underclasses in Israeli society — running anti-drug campaigns in the poorest neighborhoods, offering day-long schooling, and fighting in the Knesset for minimum-wage earners. The voters don’t forget. Shas will yet bury David Levy’s Gesher.


My only question is: just where will the next Maimonides or Rabbi Saadya Gaon come from? These Sephardic giants were philosophers, doctors, mathematicians, poets and scientists as well as halachic masters. They had broad horizons, and sought to prepare their disciples for life as a Jew in the real world. Listening today to Shas spokesmen and educators, however, is a course in hostility to the ‘outside’ world, rejection of secular knowledge and higher scholastics, ambivalence to the Zionist enterprise, scorn for the rule of law and democratic institutions, and an abiding suspicion of modernity.


Essentially, Shas is seeking to turn ‘Sephardim’ into ‘hareidim’, with all that entails regarding participation (or lack thereof) in the army, economy, arts and so on. And with the hareidization, comes an attitude problem too.


One recoils at the condescension towards others, and the air of absolute religious self-assurance, that at times dribbles out the mouths of some Shas spokesmen. Remember when Rabbi Peretz of Shas said he ‘knew’ why a group of vacationing schoolgirls was hurt so badly in a bus accident? Because they were travelling on Shabbat, he ‘paskened’. G-d himself must have informed Peretz of this. Similar remarks have been made in ‘explanation’ of the recent bombings and army tragedies. You have to wonder: where do you sign up for the Shas-sponsored direct fax link to G-d’s accounting department?


Just how far can Rabbi Kedouri’s kemaiot go? The answer to this question, I think, depends on what happens in the rest of Israeli society. As long as the broader Israeli milieu continues to accent material advancement, unlimited personal freedoms (including the most unconventional ‘alternative’ lifestyles) and disdain for tradition — Shas will flourish. Its package of heritage, family values and fear of G-d (all laudable!), along with a pinch of pride, an abundance of indignation, and an overflow of self-righteousness, cannot be wished away.


David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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