It’s been a long time since Shas had a campaign rally like it had Tuesday night in Tel Aviv’s Yad Eliyahu stadium. The crowd was whipped into a frenzy when party chairman Arye Dery entered the arena. As the rally wound down, a signal was given and at least a thousand adrenalin-infused young men burst from the stands onto the court and pulled Dery into a wild dance, as if their team had just won the cup final.
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Mission accomplished. But throughout the electrifying event it was worth taking a look at Dery’s face, even as his fans surrounded him and danced with him. They roared “Ar-ye! Ar-ye!” but Dery wore a frozen smile and looked worried, like someone whose team is in trouble. That’s how he looked during the entire event, as the Shas rabbis were invited up to the podium in reverse order of their importance until they reached the head of the Shas Council of Torah Sages, Rabbi Shalom Cohen.
Dery may be Shas’ boss, but from his place at the center of the dais, to the right of the podium, he looked more like the event’s producer or overseer. He rose from his seat restlessly, and even when he sat back down, he intervened in the rabbis’ addresses two or three times. When Rabbi Daniel Zer generated a hail of boos by mentioning Eli Yishai, former Shas chairman and now head of the rival Yahad, Dery asked him to change the subject. And when Cohen took the podium Dery tensed up lest the sharp-tongued spiritual leader cause problems; he paid especially close attention as Cohen began to talk about the video released at the start of the campaign in which Shas’ late mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef made remarks critical of Dery and in praise of Yishai, delivering a blow to the party from which it has yet to recover.
Less than two weeks before the election, Dery apparently knows that adrenalin, even though it’s crucial and even when it’s found in massive quantities, will not be enough. Eight or nine Knesset seats on March 17 will be portrayed as an incredible achievement for a party that now has 11, and is unstable in the polls, with some surveys giving it only five seats. The rally, and the door-to-door campaign planned for next week and staffed by Shas-affiliated yeshiva students, are part of a last-ditch effort to rescue the party from the depths in which it finds itself, threatened by Yahad on the one hand and Likud on the other.
The rally provided intensive care for the emotions, with Rav Ovadia’s empty chair, bearing his robe and turban, sitting in the middle of the stage. There were pictures and a video of Yosef, some bouncy Hasidic pop music and election speeches aimed at the hard Haredi core of the party. No one mentioned the hype that has started to build around Dery from the secular Mizrahi left.
Yishai was the elephant in the room. Dery had demanded in advance that no one mention him, but still his name was invoked. “A person who hears someone who might be thinking of changing his mind or things like that, he should be stoned,” said Cohen, without mentioning Yahad.