By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
When partners fall out with each other, the fallout can be devastating. In marriage it’s called divorce, but, of course, it occurs in many other situations. In Israel, it has just become an election issue with possible serious consequences.
The late Ovadia Yosef, a former Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, allegedly a great scholar and the undisputed leader of most Orthodox Sephardim in Israel, was the virtual owner of the Shas party. At its inception Yosef appointed Arieh Deri, a gifted and “charismatic” young man, as the titular party leader.
However, when Deri ended up in jail having been convicted of misappropriating funds when he was a minister (ostensibly for his party’s institutions), Yosef replaced him with Eli Yishai, a lesser star but a faithful lackey, who became the official spokesman of Shas and served as a cabinet minister.
After Deri’s return from jail and the cooling off period that followed and now much older, he was reinstated as party leader. Yosef was then still alive. Yishai would now play second fiddle. He didn’t like it. The relationship between him and Deri became strained. It exploded when Yosef died.
In anticipation of the elections next March, Yishai decided to leave Shas and form a party of his own under another slogan of unity (what else?). The old animosity now became open warfare each man accusing the other of betraying the teachings and going against the will of Ovadia Yosef. Deri, for example, said recently that Yishai should visit the grave of Yosef and ask for forgiveness for what he’s doing.
The effect, no doubt, will be a weakening of both sides. Yishai will take votes from Deri’s Shas yet his party may not have enough to qualify for Knesset seats.
Yishai is insisting that the split isn’t personal but ideological. Indeed, he is to the right of Deri who of late has tried to style himself as a social activist on behalf of the poor in Israel, whether Sephardi or not.
As Shas together with the other ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) political parties has been kept out of the outgoing Netanyahu government, Deri may, therefore, like to join the (slightly) left of centre Herzog-Livni coalition if it comes to power. Yishai, on the other hand, may not even get enough seats to qualify for the Knesset.
All this would be of little interest to people outside Israel had it not been heralding, as some have suggested, the breakdown of the Haredi parties in Israel. Not only is the Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide in Israeli society becoming increasingly artificial and thus more and more untenable, but a growing number of Haredim who now support the many Haredi parties may wish to vote differently than they used to.
My column in this week’s issue of the Canadian Jewish News comments on the open letter by 3000 Haredi women threatening not to vote for their parties unless and until they include women candidates for the Knesset, which they’ve not done so far. Also some Haredim may have an interest to vote for other parties, occasionally on the liberal end of the spectrum but more likely on the ultra-nationalist end, because this may serve Haredi needs better, e.g., when it comes to housing subsidies in the territories.
It’s too early to say if the March elections will change the political landscape, but it may. Pessimists like me don’t think that it’ll necessarily be for the better.