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Ovadia Yosef’s Economic Legacy: A Culture of Poverty and Ignorance

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"Lehachzir ha-atara le-yoshno," which can be roughly translated as "restore the grandeur of our past," was the late Rabbi Ovaida Yosef's guiding principle in his years as a rabbi and as spiritual leader of the Shas Pparty.

To many, even to many of his devotees, it might have conjured up images of Mizrahi Judaism's glorious past, centuries ago in Spain and elsewhere in the Muslim world,. An era of brilliant culture, wealth and progress within the framework of piety.

But Rabbi Yosef had a much more restricted vision of that golden age: He wanted to restore Mizrahi Judaism to halakchic greatness by stripping it of centuries of kabbalism and obscurantism and grounding it in more rational thinking; making Jewish law understandable and accessible to the masses.

However laudable that might have been, by the time his ideals were filtered through the political party he created, there was little ideology left, except for a culture of grievance against Ashkenazi dominance. Shas apparatchiks employed the worst sort of mystical hocus-pocus to garner votes, replicated the Ashkenazi Haredi practice of schnorring off the state, while - irony of ironies - the party's core constituency of Mizrahi Haredim (Mizrahim) mimicked the dress and lifestyle of their European counterparts.

Shas created a structure of institutions parallel to those of the Ashkenazim, financed by the government but never accountable to it. For the party's core ultra-Orthodox constituency, having a job and serving in the army were to be avoided as distractions from the preeminent occupation of learning, another Ashkenazi Haredi innovation. While Rabbi Yosef himself always appeared in public in the traditional garb of the Sephardi chief rabbi, he was surrounded by men attired in the style of 19th-century Polish bourgeoisie, no different from their Ashkenazi brothers.

Appearances are not always deceiving: Intentionally or not, the late rabbi was the head of a movement that was leading his community backwards, into the poverty and ignorance that the Ashkenazi Haredi world has adopted for itself in Israel over the last decades.

Planned poverty?

Cynics have argued that this is all part of plan to keep Shas voters mired in poverty, ignorance and naïve belief. After all, if the party were to succeed in finding its voters a comfortable place in Israeli society, they would have no need for the party. Because Shas' raison d'etre is grievance, not solutions, the party has often found itself on the wrong side of "social" legislation, voting against raising the minimum wage and a host of public housing legislation. It fought harder for child allowances than for creating jobs.

Nevertheless, the cynicism about Shas is unfair. Shas' leaders - and not just Yosef - are true believers, and, as hard as it is for the non-religious to fathom, they honestly hold by the view that Jews can prosper and thrive on their spiritual power alone. Thus, the party's educational institutions - its pride and greatest achievement - immerse their students in Torah learning, without giving them the skills they need to enter a modern labor force. The idea isn’t to cultivate the next generation of voters, but to create a good and pious Jew. A higher minimum wage won't do that, but opening another Ma'ayan Hahinukh Hatorani classroom with government money will.

Politics of defiance

Now, here's another irony: Despite Shas' retrograde policies, the economic lot of Israel's Mizrahi Jews – the ones who came from the Middle East and North Arica – has greatly improved since the party arrived on the political scene.

The month before Yosef died, Prof. Momi Dahan published a paper at the Israeli Democracy Institute proving the point. Dahan found that, while the household income and hourly wages of Jews of Afro-Asian origin, as Dahan calls them, are still lower than their European-American peers, the gap has narrowed dramatically.

Looking exclusively at second-generation Israelis, i.e. people who were born in Israel, the income of the average Mizrahi household is still 26% less than that of an Ashkenazi one. But in 1995, the gap was 40%. That's an unusually sharp drop in a very short amount of time. The gap between the number of Mizrahim and Ashkenazim in the labor force also narrowed, especially for women, as did the gap in hourly wages.

The representation of Mizrahim in the top 10% of income earners in Israel is today proportionate to their share of the population.

The economic progress of Israel's Mizrahim has gone hand-in-hand with social and political integration. Intermarriage between Ashkenazim and Sephardim is on the rise, they share in the same cultural preferences and pastimes, according to recent surveys, and high school matriculation scores are the same for both groups, after discounting for parents' income and education. Though you wouldn't know it from the way politicians and the media talk about it, Mizrahim as a distinct group are gradually becoming indistinguishable from the other ingredients in the greater Israeli melting pot.

Across the developed world, income gaps are growing, even in countries that have social welfare networks far more generous than Israel's. Piggish capitalism may be responsible for some of this, but schooling seems to be an even bigger determinant. Throughout the developed world, those with the appropriate skills and training earn more money, enjoy greater job security and are less likely to be unemployed than those without.

So it is with Israel's Mizrahi Jews, asserts Dahan. The percentage of Mizrahi 20-29-year-olds studying at an institute of higher education more than doubled in 10 years, from 6.8% in 1995-96 to 13.7% in 2006-07. (The rate among Ashkenazim was 17.7% in 1995-96 and 20.7% in 2006-07.) That is still a wide gap, but the trend is clear. Social revolutions don't occur overnight.

Shas and its educational network can take no credit for this. Its schools have not been designed to shepherd the young into higher education and rewarding careers; its politics are based on a defiant ethnic identity, not on easy social integration. The moral of the Shas story is that economic power for an ethnic group doesn't come from political power.

The factors that have vaulted Israel into the ranks of the world's wealthiest and most advanced economies (even if at the bottom end of the elite) had nothing to do with Shas' forte of grabbing a bigger share of the political spoils. It had everything to do with education, enterprise and innovation, all things the party and its leaders, Yosef among them, looked on with suspicion, if not loathing.

Aryeh Deri, left, was behind the appoinment of Rabbi Shalom Cohen to head the Shas Council of Torah Sages, filling the void left by the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, right, last year.Credit: Reuters

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