Ovadia Yosef
Photo by Amos Biderman
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Interior Minister and Shas chairman Eli Yishai summoned a number of his party's members from Immanuel and representatives of the media to a meeting on Monday in the faction's room at the Knesset. His goal: to minimize some of the damage caused by his silence in the face of the religious and ethnic debacle in Immanuel. Yishai also wanted to say on the record that Shas' answer to discrimination against the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox is to establish "more and more institutions of the Shas educational network, Ma'ayan Hahinukh Hatorani," as it has done in Immanuel.

After the last of the reporters and cameramen left the room, there remained fathers of schoolgirls in the "general track" - the one physically separated in the past by a screen, and by uniforms different than those worn by the girls of the mostly Ashkenazi "Hasidic track." Now those in the general track remain alone because of the so-called Hasidic parents' refusal to obey the High Court of Justice ruling and send their daughters back to joint classes.

"You have abandoned us, you have betrayed us," said the guests, most of them party people, employees of the local government and other residents of the ultra-Orthodox and impoverished settlement in the northern West Bank. But they did not shout.

The fathers of the Hasidic girls have been in jail for more than a week now because of their refusal to obey the court ruling. They argued to the justices that the separation was undertaken for religious, not ethnic, reasons, and added that this was proved by the fact that a third of the girls in that educational track are of Mizrahi origin (i.e., of Middle Eastern descent ). They related in court, and to the press as well, that the girls in the general track come from homes that are not ultra-Orthodox, where the way of life is not accepted in ultra-Orthodox terms. They told of homes with forbidden televisions and Internet, of a father seen smoking on the Sabbath and of a mother who goes around in immodest clothing.

"They spilled our blood and you remained silent," said a devoutly ultra-Orthodox father, Amnon Assaf, whose daughter studies in the general track, to the Shas people. "They said Sabbath-desecrators? They are talking about me, me. They spilled our blood in the media, everywhere, and you kept quiet. The spilling of blood is also on you, because you kept quiet," he accused them.

Afterward, one of the Knesset members told Haaretz: "They came to the meeting, all of them with beards down to their navel. Ultra-Orthodox. I was really very surprised. I expected newly religious people in jeans, people who aren't prepared to accept the definitions of the Orthodox - newly religious people who go around like secular people. Suddenly they show up, completely ultra-Orthodox. I thought just a minute, what's going on here?"

That was even before the publication of the results of the Channel 2 survey, which predicted an even race between Shas (eight Knesset seats ) and a possible new party headed by former Shas chairman Aryeh Deri (seven seats ). Only this week did Eli Yishai understand, some three and a half years after the crisis in Immanuel actually began, that the fact that he is the leader of a Torah-observant Sephardic party - at a time when he has Deri hanging over his head - makes silence a terrible idea.

Tainted with hypocrisy

Yishai says the media's demand that Shas raise its voice in protest is tainted with hypocrisy. After all, those same journalists who now criticize him for his silence have accused him in the past of fanning ethnic flames when he did speak out. He is also hearing harsh criticism from his advisers, from people in the street and from the people of Immanuel. With the latter, he made another appointment, in the town, for Sunday.

Yishai's people will likely tell him about the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Internet sites and online forums brimming with bitterness toward Shas and statements like, "I will never vote for Shas again." The Shas house radio station, Kol Barama, held a telephone poll and found that Yoav Laloum, the petitioner in the case, has more listener support than the movement does with its official line.

"It's true that we've established a school for girls in Immanuel," says a Shas MK, "but not everything has a solution. Sometimes there aren't solutions, and it's important to the public to feel it has backing. Among the Ashkenazim there is a deep rift in the leadership, but they gave the parents backing. They made them martyrs - shahidim. There was an expectation like that among our public. The people of Immanuel are our weakest public. They are coming and saying, 'At least defend us. They've slandered us and you haven't come to our defense. What have you done? You've condemned those who go to the High Court of Justice.' There mustn't be a situation in which we allow ourselves to be paralyzed by the fact that we have a number of cabinet ministers and MKs whose children attend Ashkenazi schools."

In private conversations, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual head and founder of the Shas movement, likes say that his heart aches for pious Sephardim who lose their honor, health and money from trying to push their children into the Ashkenazi educational institutions. However, nearly all Yosef's own descendants, like almost all the offspring of the movement's top people, are given a select ultra-Orthodox "Lithuanian" education. The problem is not only the envy of those who are left out: The removal of their best students perpetuates the reputation of Sephardi educational institutions as being second-rate, in the best case.

The Shas faction room at the Knesset has photos and illustrations of rabbis and sages from Spain; pride of place is given to an oil painting of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. At the end of the summer he will be 90. His writings and activities in the realm of rabbinical law are numerous and great, and they will continue to influence the world of rabbinical law after all the Ashkenazi "great men of the generation" are long forgotten.

Nonetheless, the legal revolution Yosef has fomented touches mainly upon those who live by his rulings, and they, apparently, do not constitute even half the followers of Shas. Indeed, especially in the shadow of the Immanuel affair, the Shas revolution seems hollower than ever. With Immanuel, has Shas has completed the transition from being an ultra-Orthodox party with a social agenda, to a satellite party of United Torah Judaism, only more right wing?

Giving credence to this idea are two moves taken last week by the Shas spiritual leadership, in which it stood by the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox establishment. The first was Rabbi Yosef's harsh statements against Laloun's petition to the court, as though that were the only item on the agenda. Second was the panicked meeting of the Council of Torah Sages last Thursday - the day of the Jerusalem rally meant to accompanying the parents' entry into prison.

The meeting of the council headed by Yosef was a rare event. Its purpose was to demand urgent clarifications from Rabbi Chaim Amsellem, the faction's independent-minded MK. On the agenda: his possible sacking. Amsellem expressed reservations quite some time ago about the petition and the possible intervention by the High Court of Justice in the happenings in Immanuel, but he is the only one of the movement people who for months now has been speaking out openly against the silence of Shas on this issue. The MK - who makes a point of sending his own children to Sephardi educational institutions - also called in a recent article for these institutions to be further nurtured.

The first message of the "clarification conclave" with Amsellem was, therefore: There are things that must not be mentioned in Shas, like for example the existence of discrimination against Sephardim. The official reason for the meeting, however, was the publication of Amsellem's new book of rabbinical law, in which he declares, among other things, that conversion of new immigrants who serve in the Israel Defense Forces should be made easier.

The book so annoyed the "Lithuanians" and their leader, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, that during the past few months a brutal campaign against Amsellem has been raging - of the sort only the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yated Neeman knows how to wage. Rabbi Yosef and Eli Yishai got the hint that Amsellem must be put in his place.

Shasniks who are well acquainted with Yishai say that what has so far prevented him from intervening in the Immanuel affair has been his personal hostility toward the petitioner, Laloum, and the fact that during the past two years the interior minister has had a lot of contact with the Ashkenazi rabbis Elyashiv and Aharon Leib Steinman and other important Ashkenazi religious scholars.

"Eli has a paralyzing fear of Ashkenazim," says one member of the faction, speaking anonymously. "If he is in and out of the homes of the Ashkenazi rabbis, at least something good should come of it. Not for Yishai, for the Sephardim. That this isn't happening means the rabbis are just exploiting him for their side. After all, apart from [Deputy Education Minister] Meir Porush, I don't see a single Ashkenazi MK who comes to Rabbi Ovadia. Why does Eli go? It's as though it gives him the recognition of the Ashkenazim. I don't understand why he needs this. He might say he does it in the name of peace. But what have we gained from this peace?"

At last week's Jerusalem demonstration, among the 100,000 demonstrators were many Sephardi ultra-Orthodox who did not wait for instructions from Shas as to whether to participate. One of them, Moshe Peretz, spoke about the "double morality" of Shas, which is not prepared to admit that Sephardim have always depended on Ashkenazim. Peretz's own mother was in a transit camp in Jaffa, until a Gur Hasid came along and they enrolled her in a Beit Yaakov school for girls.

"If today we are ultra-Orthodox, it's only thanks to the Ashkenazim. Have we, the Sephardim, succeeded in raising ourselves up? Is Amsellem saying, come on, let's revert to the Sephardi naivete? That's nonsense. No one in Shas wants that naivete," said Peretz.

Benny Bitton, a graduate of the elite Lithuanian Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, spoke heatedly against the secular, against the media and against the Supreme Court justices. He also didn't award Shas too many points: "For me, Shas is a meaningless organization, but on second thought, maybe it does have a role. If anyone has created a revolution among young people in Israel, it's Shas. The Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox public doesn't have the power to deal with the street punks. Shas does."

In the political arena, there is no reason to think the scar on Shas' face will remain there forever; even by the next elections a lot could change. Until then the party has mainly to pray for the welfare and health of two Jews: Yair Lapid, who might increase the power of the ultra-Orthodox if, as the ultra-Orthodox are hoping, he decides to run, and continues to make even harsher statements against them; and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, so that he will continue to lead the movement and give backing to "the steadfast man in my house, Rabbi Eliyahu Yishai."

And former Shas leader Aryeh Deri? In Shas they like to say the public opinion polls (which are quite favorable toward him these days ) usually underestimate the results. So some additional prayers are in order.