Thousands witness the rebirth of Shas
Any attempt to understand the past and present forces that drive Shas must examine Monday night's rally at the Yad Eliahu sports arena as a pivotal moment in the ultra-Orthodox party's history.
Any attempt to understand the past and present forces that drive Shas must examine Monday night's rally at the Yad Eliahu sports arena as a pivotal moment in the ultra-Orthodox party's history. Even so close to the event itself, it can already be defined as one of the few occurrences that will symbolize a dramatic turning point for Shas, and, by extension, for Israeli society as a whole. On a scale measuring strength of feeling and grass-roots mobilization around a leader, Tuesday's rally came close to the historic gathering in 1996, at which Aryeh Deri - at the time as former minister and suspected of criminal wrongdoing - declared that "Shasniks are the true Zionists," and was carried, pale and delirious, around Teddy Stadium on the shoulders of 20,000 of the party faithful.
After three years of stagnation, institutionalization and loss of self-confidence - which stemmed mainly from crude internal struggles on the party's well-documented frontline - the euphoric, ecstatic but at the same time angry and agitated atmosphere has returned to Shas. The morning after the rally, activists were quick to claim the success as their own: some 10,000 people filled the arena, spilling into the aisles, and thousands more milled around outside. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and his entourage, including Interior Minister Eli Yishai and a host of bodyguards, were not able to break through the tight clusters of supporters who crowded around the heavy iron gates of the arena. The security company hired for the night lost control. Those who wanted to leave the arena were unable to do so. The gates were bolted from inside with heavy locks, and one was broken down by the crowd outside trying to gain entrance.
When Yosef and his entourage finally managed to enter the arena, at 10:45 P.M., young men pushed forward in an attempt to kiss the hem of the aging rabbi's garment. When Rabbi Raphael Cohen, the master of ceremonies for the evening, announced that the venerable rabbi had arrived, the entire crowd stood up as one and the cheers were so loud that even the organizers were shocked. The stage was occupied exclusively by rabbis. The politicians were seated in a separate enclosure. Yishai, whose humility seemed too calculated, retired to the politicians' section and allowed Yosef to enjoy the place of honor alone. Only later was he carried around the arena on the shoulders of several activists.
And this, perhaps, is one of the keys to understanding the success of the rally: for the first time since the party was founded, and since Yosef always appeared as the single head of a body common to him and Deri, Yosef was finally crowned the official and exclusive leader of Shas. The rabbis who sat next to him on the stage - and most of the important rabbis from the Sephardi community were there - spoke of him in admiring tones, in terms usually reserved for praising God ("His voice is heard from every corner of the world," for example). Almost every member of the audience held aloft posters with Yosef's portrait, giving the event a well-organized and well-directed feeling. And above the stage, positioned between two huge portraits of Yosef, was a banner bearing the legend "In his light we will walk," a phrase usually reserved for the greatest Torah scholars of their generation. Even without Deri, without Rabbi Yitzhak Kadourie and without the amulets and oaths that Yosef hates so much - this election campaign has brought the admiration for a spiritual leader to the level of a personality cult.
But this is just one key. The second is the concern over the growth in popularity of Shinui. The headline of the rally was "Who is on the Lord's side?" - as if Yosef is leading an angry mob into a holy war. That was also the spirit of the speeches given by the rabbis sitting on the stage. One after another they spoke - the most charismatic proselytizers, the most popular Torah sages and the wisest members of Shas' Council of Sages - denigrating the secular Children of Israel, cursing Yosef Lapid, bemoaning the lost honor of the Torah and stirring up their audience with plastic descriptions of the dangers awaiting the Jewish people if a secular government is formed.
It was not just a successful rally. The activists who left Yad Eliahu, hoarse, but with a sparkle in their eyes, understood at once that something big had happened within Shas. Those 12,000 people went home more dedicated, more irate and more enthusiastic, and their admiration of Yosef, who withstood all the pressures and beat all his opponents, was strengthened. Now they will do the groundwork with renewed vigor. Not only to maintain the tradition or because there is no choice. The young men who were willing to crawl on the floor to touch Yosef's garment, the helplessness of the security company, the locked gates and the virulent tongue of Rabbi Shalom Cohen, who called Lapid a dog, are clear signs of the old-new combination that drives Shas: a dread of life "outside" (the economic future and the disgust of the secular), together with the feeling of marginalization and power-drunkenness.
Given this state of mind, even if Shas only gets eight seats in the 16th Knesset, those seats will be cast in iron around Yosef's authority.