Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Mizrahim Return to Politics

December 18, 2014 | Haviv Rettig Gur
About the author: Haviv Rettig Gur is the senior analyst for the Times of Israel.

Since its establishment in the 1980s, the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox party Shas has become a powerful player in Israeli politics. It presided over a religious revival among Jews of North African and Middle Eastern origin and a revolt against the Ashkenazi elite that dominated both Labor and Likud. Now the party has been split in two by its two leading politicians. In effect, argues Haviv Rettig Gur, Shas voters, instead of giving priority to their specific religious concerns, are dividing along conventional left-right lines:

It would be a mistake to believe that the schism in Shas is driven entirely by personality. The egos of the two leaders may shape the way the schism expresses itself, but these are ultimately symptoms. Shas is being rent apart . . . by larger, more substantive disagreements, the very disagreements that are shaping the new political architecture of the Israeli body politic writ large.

Israel’s political system is in chaos. A new order is materializing, and its shockwaves are being felt in nearly every corner of the political map. The left has returned in force as dovish Labor swells in the polls. So has the annexationist right, with a growing base of support for Jewish Home and growing power for the Likud’s right flank. And as the center shrinks, sectoral politics, too, are dramatically responding to the change. The Arab parties are uniting their squabbling lists in a bid to appeal to, and help shape, a more assertive Arab voice and identity.

For some time now, and largely hidden from view, these deep shifts in the public mood have been making themselves felt within the insular world of ultra-Orthodox politics. The change is coming from the street, say Shas officials. In a sense, the [two] ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism have represented an anomaly in Israeli politics. Their devotion to their spiritual leaders subsumed the usual divisions that define Israeli politics. . . . Shas was more or less insulated from the left-right divide of mainstream politics. . . .

[But] even Shas, once the bastion of a narrow haredi-centric, Sephardi-focused politics, is cleaving in two along the new fissure that increasingly defines mainstream Israeli politics, a new-old divide between left and right on generations-old questions of economic policy and, of course, what to do with the Palestinians.

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