Shas Goes for Identity Politics, Swapping 'Sephardi’ for ‘Mizrahi'

Chairman Arye Dery’s campaign has shifted from a socioeconomic one to a clear call for voting on ethnic lines.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Shas campaign sign in Tel Aviv. Top image shows Yair Lapid, bottom, Arye Dery. Captions read: 'Who are you to rehabilitate us? Mizrahi votes Mizrahi.'
Shas campaign sign in Tel Aviv. Top image shows Yair Lapid, bottom, Arye Dery. Captions read: 'Who are you to rehabilitate us? Mizrahi votes Mizrahi.'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

Thirty years ago, when Shas waved the flag meant to “return the crown to its former glory,” the message for Israeli society was revolutionary. Traditionalism and Sephardi identity are inseparable. Sephardi identity cannot be contained within fleeting phenomena like Israel’s Black Panthers protest movement of the 1970s, because it draws from the fountain of tradition.

But the freshest waters of that fountain, according to Shas founder Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, are the rulings of the 16th-century rabbi Joseph Caro meant to define the identity of Sephardim. That was Shas’s challenge to Israel.

The party’s latest, radical campaign — “a Mizrahi votes Mizrahi” — is not only the simplest and most subtle the party has ever employed, it also highlights Shas’s attempt to differentiate between religious and ethnic identity.

Shas apparently reached the conclusion that the message of “returning the crown” is too old, heavy and complex. Chairman Arye Dery’s campaign has shifted from a socioeconomic one — the struggle to aid the “transparent,” invisible people — to a clear call for voting on ethnic lines, perhaps an attempt to break the party’s glass ceiling of eight Knesset seats in the polls. Accuracy is important: it’s not “Sephardi votes Sephardi,” but rather “Mizrahi,” a term that is much more natural in Israeli media and academia than the old, archaic-sounding “Sephardi.”

After Ovadia Yosef’s death, in October 2013, it seemed Shas would use his memory to maintain and perhaps his community of followers. It’s actually Eli Yishai, who left Shas to form the rival Yahad party, who is doing this. Yesterday he released a video, filmed in the rabbi’s old room, in which Yishai talks, teary-eyed, about their meetings. Shas chose instead to put Dery up front — as social leader first, then as a Mizrahi one.

The message has gotten stronger as Dery has accumulated testimonials from Mizrahi activists and intellectuals. Dery yesterday focused on Mizrahi strongholds in Jerusalem, such as the Mahane Yehuda market, as well as meeting with veteran of the Black Panthers, in the Musrara neighborhood.

Yosef was added to the campaign only recently, in the form of billboards showing “father looking down from above.” But although Yosef’s figure has taken a back-seat role in campaigning throughout most of the country, it has been the central campaign figure in the periphery, while Sephardim, both traditional and ultra-Orthodox, campaign door-to-door.

At the party’s main election rally last week, at the Yad Eliahu stadium in Tel Aviv — attended by 10,000 men from the party’s hard-line, ultra-Orthodox core — an empty chair was left on stage for Rabbi Ovadia, .

For the Mizrahim, however, there is a different campaign, mostly aimed at central Israel, which draws inspiration from secular Mizrahi activists, with slogans drafted by talented copywriters.

Shas’s Mizrahi campaign began in Tel Aviv in January with slogans such as “If you live in Ramat Aviv, don’t vote for us,” moved on to viral videos about the “transparent” people and has now culminated with “Mizrahi votes Mizrahi.” Similar signs can be seen in Be’er Sheva, Jerusalem and Rishon Letztion as well.

Shas denies that Yosef has been pushed aside, but there’s no point denying facts, and this fact has a simple explanation. “What Yosef would have wanted” is like a minefield between Shas and Yishai’s Yahad party, and each time one of those mines blows up, Dery is hit with shrapnel.

Is the conflict over Yosef’s legacy the only reason Shas has abandoned the Sephardi issue for the Mizrahi? Of course not. Shas is convinced that it can attract a larger audience, and it is fighting for that audience with Likud, Yahad, and Habayit Hayehudi. Shas has gone all in, going after all the Mizrahim, even if it sometimes means blurring its identity as an ultra-Orthodox party. Will Dery become the social leader he so desires to be, or will all this amount to nothing more than academic coursework in a class on “identity narratives”? The answer will come on March 17.

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