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Divided They Stand

The press won't leave Shas alone. The vaguest hint dropped by the Aryeh Deri clan and every syllable that comes out of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's mouth are scrutinized under a microscope. The rift in the movement looms larger and more dramatic than ever, or so it seems.

The press won't leave Shas alone. The vaguest hint dropped by the Aryeh Deri clan and every syllable that comes out of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's mouth are scrutinized under a microscope. The rift in the movement looms larger and more dramatic than ever, or so it seems.

Deri is off to London again, to escape the brouhaha. His young supporters are spreading rumors about separate headquarters, doing the official movement untold damage. Deri's chief loyalists, headed by Eliyahu Suissa, are highly critical of Eli Yishai's Shas. Suissa says it has betrayed the underprivileged sectors. With all due respect, he says, Rabbi Yosef is not acting on his own. There is a woman, Yehudit Yosef (the rabbi's daughter-in-law, married to his son, Moshe), who manages his affairs and basically runs the show.

The interview with Suissa that was supposed to appear in the Haredi newspaper, Bakehila, was dropped after Rabbi Yosef pressed Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzeira of Be'er Sheva to intervene. Most of the interview was leaked ahead of time to the secular papers, and Deri's "Tanzim" circulated a doctored photo in Jerusalem showing Eli Yishai and Shlomo Benizri at a press conference in the company of Yehudit Yosef. Look at her, say Deri fans: This is the leader of Shas. This is the boss. This is the lady who gives the orders. What a disgrace! To think that this is how things are conducted in the rabbi's home!

This crude, aggressive propaganda is only the tip of the iceberg in an ugly mudslinging campaign that is largely concealed from the eyes of the public, and probably from Rabbi Yosef himself. But this attack on Yehudit Yosef that reached a peak with the distribution of fliers in Jerusalem proclaiming, among other things, that her children are bastards and their father is Eli Yishai, reveals something about the currents underlying this lauded social movement, which has "restored the glory" of the Sephardi community.

Yehudit Yosef's family says she is a victim of the "soldier at the gate" syndrome: Those who wouldn't dare to attack Rabbi Yosef himself, out of fear, or respect for his position, or both, take out all their anger and frustration on little Yehudit. Never mind that we are talking about a young, intelligent and talented woman. These things only work to her detriment.

Yosef, who runs the rabbi's home, is only one of dozens of strong women with tireless energy and tremendous political skill who are forced to work behind the scenes, or in very limited capacities, because they are ultra-Orthodox women who belong to an ultra-Orthodox party.

The men, who depend on these women in every sphere - including, very often, earning a livelihood - know very well that they are worth their weight in gold when election season rolls around. They admire them and fear their power. Yehudit Yosef apparently inspires more fear than most because she sits in the lions' den and puts them all to shame. Naturally, exercising perfect discretion, she manages the rabbi's house, which is also her private residence (she is the mother of seven small children), a political sanctum seething with secrets and power struggles, and a synagogue bustling with people. Perhaps that is why demonizing her is so easy.

In these hidden quarters, something akin to a family drama is going on, revolving mainly around a painful rift. It began at a very specific moment in 1996, when attorney David Glass, then an associate of Aryeh Deri, emerged from a meeting of the Council of Torah Sages and announced - himself shocked - that Eli Yishai would be the new minister. All the rest is history, raging and bloody.

Rabbi Yosef remains heartbroken over Deri. He still has hopes that his beloved protege and bitter rival will come to his senses and mend his differences with Yosef and the movement at the last moment, calling on the public to vote for Shas. Things aren't easy for Deri either. He wavered this week, but his associates bore upon him to continue the fight.

In the end, Suissa, who attacked Yishai for turning his back on the poor, voted, for some reason, in favor of the budget. For Deri, it hasn't sunk in yet that there are those who are waging his battles, but not exactly in his name or for his sake. Meanwhile, most of the quarrels in this divided family - the sons of Rabbi Yosef, the Suderis, the Deris and a number of other families - are going on in secret. The public knows little.

Not for long. Even if there were a temporary reconciliation with Deri, Rabbi Yosef, for the first time in his life, is challenging him as the sole leader of the movement that was founded jointly by the two of them, like a body with two heads. No dirt dished up about the rabbi's daughter-in-law can diminish the threat that looms over both of them. Will Rabbi Yosef's leadership strengthen Shas or weaken it? Are Shas and Deri still one and the same?

Whatever the answer, the ugly weeds of Shas have begun to rear their heads. Someone sowed them a long time ago. Uprooting them now will be very difficult - if it can be done at all.