Memorial Event for Shas Founder Ovadia Yosef Proves the Party Is Still a Force

Jerusalem event marks one-year anniversary of the death of the party's founder and spiritual leader.

Emil Salman

Shas isn’t yet a lost cause. That’s the conclusion the party’s supporters came to after Sunday night’s memorial in Jerusalem to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of the party’s founder and spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

More than 11,000 men filled the new Payis Arena, in the city’s southwest, while a few thousand women gathered at the International Convention Center in central Jerusalem to watch a live feed of the event. After a difficult year, Shas chairman Aryeh Deri has cause to hope he can rebuild the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party.

In his speech, Deri promised to continue in Yosef’s path. But the gathering’s most important message came about an hour earlier, when he apologized to an overflow crowd of “thousands” for whom there was no room in the stadium. He said the heavy turnout showed respect for Yosef.

It also showed respect for Deri, who learned his lessons from an unsuccessful earlier event that kicked off the month-long commemoration of Yosef. First, he booked the Arena, which holds 11,000, rather than the 40,000-seat Ramat Gan Stadium. He also urged both men’s yeshivas and women’s seminaries to turn out in full force.

Deri got what he wanted: a photograph of the Arena bursting at the seams. He just has to hope nobody remembers that one-third of the crowd left before the end of the keynote speech, delivered by Rabbi Shalom Cohen at about 1 A.M.

Deri scored another achievement as well: He invited dozens of rabbis to grace the dais, and “all of them are here,” as Yosef’s son, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, said in his address, ignoring the glaring absence of his father-in-law, former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.

Particularly noteworthy was the presence of Yitzhak Yosef’s younger brother Moshe Yosef, who was a leading figure in Shas while his father was alive but has since been marginalized. Despite his closeness to Amar and their mutual grudge against Deri, Moshe Yosef acceded to the urgings of Deri’s representatives and attended the memorial.

Photo by Emil Salman

“Heaven forbid there should be any schism among us Sephardim,” Yitzhak Yosef said in his speech.

Officially, the gathering was organized not by Shas, but by El Hama’ayan, the association that runs the party’s network of schools. That made it possible to invite government officials such as the Sephardi chief rabbi to the memorial. Nevertheless, the ceremony was clearly a Shas event.

Most of the audience was made up of Haredi yeshiva students, a group whose interests Deri has always guarded carefully.

Aryeh Deri. Photo by Emil Salman

That was a sharp contrast sharply to most of the party’s political rallies. These usually attract a large number of traditional, but not necessarily Orthodox or Haredi, Sephardim. But Deri believes the party’s Haredi hard core is the key to its revival, and that the traditional Sephardi electorate will follow in its wake.

For now, Shas rallies look more like yeshiva events, complete with warnings against using the Internet or smartphones, than a mass popular movement. Over the past year, a series of steps Deri has taken, or hasn’t been able to prevent, have distanced the party from the traditional Sephardim who are its electoral bastion.

These include appointing Rabbi Shalom Cohen — who is popular among the Sephardi elite, but not the masses, and is known mainly for divisive, extremist statements — to head the party’s Council of Torah Sages; adamantly opposing a law to draft yeshiva students into the army; and a failed bet on Moshe Leon to win last year’s Jerusalem mayoral race.

Photo by Emil Salman

But Deri’s biggest failure remains his inability to restore peace in the party’s ranks. He hasn’t been able to appease either former party chairman Eli Yishai, who acts as an internal opposition within Shas, or Amar, whom many people consider the true heir to Ovadia Yosef’s religious teachings. These rifts aren’t solely Deri’s fault, but they have seriously undermined his political prestige.

Deri began his speech Sunday night by praising Shas’ representatives in the Knesset, “first and foremost MK Eli Yishai, who had the privilege of being at our master’s right hand for a very long time and walked hand in hand with him during a very difficult period. As one man with one heart, we’ll continue the revolution.” That won him resounding applause.

But instead of echoing Deri’s conciliatory message, Cohen insulted Amar. Referring to an unnamed individual who wants to be chief rabbi — a clear reference to Amar, who has been mentioned as a candidate for chief rabbi of Jerusalem — Cohen said that instead of being appointed to the throne, Amar “should go to the throne room.”