The weekend picture of the charred remains of the bus blown up by a suicide bomber in Jerusalem's Kiryat Menahem quarter - with only the smiling face of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and the Shas party slogan intact - was anathema to Shas party leaders. It symbolized the fear that the party's propaganda would be interpreted as being too alienated from the public and its woes. A few hesitant voices could be heard in Shas this week criticizing the movement for having become too much part of the establishment, and expressing fears that this would cost it votes in the upcoming elections.
There are already preliminary indications of this: On every political talk show on TV, the directors seem to put a Shas MK with his suit and tie opposite a hoarse and unemployed activist from a development area, or an angry single mother of Sephardi origin. They inevitably lash out at the party which claims to represent the weaker strata of society.
The Shas young guard are well aware of this Achilles heel. That is why they have come out with a new and daring slogan - "Shas provides for more than just the soul." In other words, Shas provides also for the bare feet and empty schoolbags. But that is not sufficient. Even voters who are apathetic about the political issues, who are only involved in trying to make ends meet, might decide not to waste the precious ballot, the only ballot, on the providers of vegetables and summer camps. Charitable organizations are one thing, and the desire to have an influence is another.
The Shas leaders, who get the point, decided two days ago to build up a more sophisticated line. They will probably show how Eli Yishai, the small son of a poor building laborer, became interior minister and deputy prime minister - and like him, many others. The message is that Shas is an excellent medium for the mobility of poor Sephardi children. Sephardi, rather than "Mizrahi" (eastern), because "Sephardi" implies only religious identity as opposed to "Mizrahi," which is seen in Shas as a political-cultural identity and has recently become too much identified with the Democratic Mizrahi Rainbow and other organizations that have secular values.
All of this will perhaps fill a few colorful political broadcasts but it is not enough. Shas has to show what it has achieved in the past two years and that will not be easy. What can it show? Its Torah school network has not expanded as the heads of the movement had hoped. (The right-wing minister, Limor Livnat, put a spoke in their wheels more than the left-wing Yossi Sarid had ever dreamed of). The social legislation of its MKs is far from impressive, and all the rest refers to the sphere of ritual baths and yeshivas which is taken care of in an orderly institutionalized way by the ministries of interior and religious affairs, the religious councils and the local authorities.
The elected representatives of Shas are not elected, their popularity in the community is not relevant to the decisions of the Council of Sages, and from year to year, the influence of the rabbis and the heads of the yeshivas grows as compared with that of the young activists from the poor neighborhoods who surrounded Shas' previous political leader, Aryeh Deri, when he started off.
United Torah Judaism is facing an even more serious problem. What exactly can its leaders show its large voting public that almost automatically puts its ballot slip into the envelope? The law for large families which, by all estimates, brought the Haredi public more hatred than assistance; or the praiseworthy civilian activities of some of the party members that the rabbis are not interested in stressing?
The Ashkenazi Haredi public, which over the years has broken up into more and more groups and subgroups, has expressed - in the sectorial press and by other means including in the street, ritual baths or synagogues - a great deal of dissatisfaction over the achievements of its representatives. It is no accident that the weekly Bakehila is once again holding its own "primaries" whose interim results indicate that there is no connection between the regular activists of Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael and the desires of the public they represent.
With these difficulties in mind, both the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi Haredi activists blame the easiest scapegoat - Shinui party leader Tommy Lapid. As Bakehila editor Dudi Silberschlag, who strongly attacks the Haredi war on Lapid, puts it - it's lucky there's a Tommy. Yishai's advisers informed him this week that he should cut down on the use of the threatening figure of Lapid.
Unfortunately, the internal criticism will not help. Not only because Haredi politics is in the midst of a deep crisis, but because Shinui - which has nothing to offer other than enmity and intimidation - uses the Haredi image in exactly the same way. The two camps are locked in a diabolical embrace. Any mandate that the one gets will go toward barren hatred on the other side - which will weaken the power of politics to influence state and society. "Thanks to Shas minister Benizri," another new anonymous Shinui MK will say. Across the divide, the empty echo will come from Shas or UTJ: "And thanks to Tommy Lapid."
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