Founded in 1983, the political party known as Shas represents Ḥaredim of Mizraḥi descent, a constituency that has often experienced no small amount of prejudice from both secular and religious Ashkenazi society. Although its influence has declined somewhat from its peak in 1998, it tellingly tied for third place in the most recent election. A new Israeli film, titled The Unorthodox in English, depicts Shas’s founding by an obscure printer named Yaakov Cohen, played by the actor Shuli Rand. Sarah Rindner writes in her review:
In the film, Rand, channeling Cohen, narrates: “People think that politics is about the ‘big shots’ . . . but real politics, the kind that survives, comes from the bottom, from the street, from the people, from the pain.” In Cohen’s case, it was frustration that his high-school-age daughter had been kicked out of an elite Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox high school for no real reason other than being Sephardi. “Mr. Cohen,” he is chastised by her principal, “you are a guest of the ḥaredi community; don’t abuse our hospitality.”
The rebuke echoed the condescension in which the dominant religious party, Agudat Israel, held its Sephardi voters. Cohen, along with a motley crew of neighborhood characters, patched together a political party, at first only hoping for some representation in the local Jerusalem elections, that would eventually become a major national party and a political movement. Ostensibly focused on local concerns such as funding for synagogues and houses of Torah study, what the party really provides for its constituents is a sense of pride in their Mizraḥi heritage and a refusal to accept a second-class status in a European-dominated Torah culture.
Cohen’s associate Yigal, a ritual slaughterer with a checkered past, declares that “the [Mizraḥi] Black Panthers will look like pussycats next to us.” But truthfully, there is something gentle about the Shas revolution as depicted in the film. It’s a party of elderly Moroccan ladies from the periphery of Israel beaming as a well-spoken rabbi calls to “return the crown to her former glory.” . . .
Ultimately, Rindner concludes, the film is “an exploration of what it means for an organic community to become an organized political movement, replete with bureaucracy, egos, and corruption.”