How Religion and Identity Politics Were Harnessed to Create an Unstoppable Political Force in Israel

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"The Unorthodox" by director Eliran Malka.
"The Unorthodox" by director Eliran Malka.Credit: Yaron Scharf / Lev Cinemas
Asaf Shalev
Asaf Shalev
Asaf Shalev
Asaf Shalev

Identity politics and religion take center stage in “The Unorthodox,” the opening film at this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival. Viewers are transported back to the 1980s when a political movement known as Shas began its ascent from a local party of observant Mizrahi Jews to an unstoppable force in national and regional politics.

Shas’ brand of identity politics triumphed by using religion as an organizing principle, promising the restoration of lost dignity for Jews of color and faith. Over the years, its numbers have swelled and the party has played the role of kingmaker in governments – and, at times, the swing vote on peace accords with the Palestinians. 

The Unorthodox - TrailerCredit: Courtesy of Lev Cinemas

Ultra-Orthodox Mizrahim (also known as Sephardim) trace their roots back to communities in Spain, North Africa and the Middle East. The Mizrahim who moved to Israel after its founding in 1948 were often marginalized by the dominant Ashkenazim (Jews of European extraction). The racism experienced by Mizrahim at the time was not so thinly veiled.

“The Unorthodox” is the debut feature film of Israeli director Eliran Malka, who won accolades earlier this year for his hit comedy-drama series “Shababnikim,” which depicts the everyday lives of mildly rebellious yeshiva students.

Aryeh Deri, a political kingmaker and head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, holds the hand of the party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, at a women's conference in Jerusalem, March 2013Credit: Reuters

In the film Malka tells the story of a pious Jerusalemite who turns to political organizing after his daughter is blatantly refused admission to a prestigious ultra-Orthodox school because of her ethnic background. 

Malka, whose family comes from Morocco, says he made the movie as part of a quest to better understand himself. 

“This story is a prism through which to ask questions about myself, such as: What does it mean for me to be Mizrahi?” he explains.

What to watch at the 2018 Jerusalem International Film Festival

Eliran had never developed a special identification with Shas until he uncovered the group’s origin story while researching another project. “Even many current Shas people do not know it,” he says about the party’s roots.

"The Unorthodox" by director Eliran Malka.Credit: Yaron Scharf / Lev Cinemas
"The Unorthodox" by director Eliran Malka.Credit: Yaron Scharf / Lev Cinemas

An unorthodox man  

The credit for Shas’ founding belongs to a group of mid-level Sephardi rabbis: One of them, Nissim Ze’ev, wanted to send his daughter to study at a seminary run by the Ashkenazi-dominated Agudat Yisrael party.

The seminary refused to let her in – a rejection that would be repeated a quarter-century later when an ultra-Orthodox school in the West Bank city of Immanuel rejected a group of girls from Sephardi families. Shas’ response to the Immanuel affair would reveal a lot about how the movement had evolved by 2010.

Malka created the main character in “The Unorthodox” by combining the experiences of Ze’ev and his fellow rabbis. 

Shas, known initially in 1983 as the Sephardi Torah Guardians, had built up a base of support in Jerusalem by gathering Mizrahi youth who had dropped out of school and were deemed delinquents, providing them with religious education and social activities. 

Lacking access to the public funding funneled to Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox organizations, the group broke with the main Haredi-Hasidic party (Agudat Yisrael) and decided to run an independent list in the Jerusalem municipal elections. 

Its visible blend of religiosity and empowerment garnered enough votes in hardscrabble Mizrahi neighborhoods to win three out the 31 council seats. Agudat Yisrael, founded 70 years earlier, also won three.

In an article published on November 11, 1983, Haaretz crowned the newcomers as “the Black Panthers from Agudat Yisrael” – referring to the Israeli protest movement of Mizrahi youth from the early ’70s.

“The Black Panthers from Agudat Yisrael” – Haaretz report from November 11, 1983, about Shas' first political victory, in the race for the Jerusalem Municipality.Credit: Haaretz

As part of its strategy, the Torah Guardians secured endorsements from influential rabbis representing various Mizrahi communities. Ties to rabbis proved key and the group’s big political breakthrough came when Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – who had just finished his tenure as Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel – threw his weight behind the party and installed his son in a leadership position. 

Known as perhaps the greatest Torah scholar and rabbinical authority of his generation, Yosef propelled the group to the national stage in the following year’s parliamentary election. Shas – a Hebrew acronym of “Guardians of the Sephardim” – won four seats and has made it into every subsequent Knesset.

Today, although Shas is a political faction of waning fortunes, it is still crucial for the preservation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition. (It has seven seats in the current Knesset.)

Scholars and commentators have argued, convincingly, that Shas succeeds because the ruling elites allow it to exist as a pressure valve for the grievances of the Mizrahi poor, devoutly religious or otherwise. Critics claim that rather than demanding social justice, Shas has turned its constituents into welfare clients dependent on its party-run institutions. 

"The Unorthodox" by director Eliran Malka.Credit: Yaron Scharf / Lev Cinemas

Still, none of these criticisms cancel the impressive grassroots effort and savvy political organizing that led to the establishment of the movement back in the ’80s.

And because it has been willing to work on both sides of the parliamentary divide, Shas has been a member of nearly every government since 1984. 

The party has often provided the indispensable votes to allow larger parties to form a coalition. Being in this position has allowed it to extract concessions and determine major questions of national importance. 

The party has managed to grab Mizrahi voters mostly from the right-wing Likud party. Many of these voters are not ultra-Orthodox, but do attend synagogue regularly and maintain religious traditions. 

At the peak of its popularity, three-quarters of its supporters were not ultra-Orthodox, according to Mizrahi scholar Sami Shalom Chetrit. 

"The Unorthodox" by director Eliran Malka.Credit: Yaron Scharf / Lev Cinemas

Under the leadership of young and charismatic Arye Dery, Shas gained additional traction and Dery went on to serve as a minister in both right-wing and left-wing governments. (His own political adventures and criminal misadventures are arguably worthy of a movie in themselves.) By 1996, the party had 10 Knesset seats, peaking with 17 seats in 1999.

One of Shas’ most dramatic moments occurred in 1993 when it formed part of the government of Yitzhak Rabin, who was in midst of peace negotiations with the Palestinians. 

Yosef, the movement’s spiritual leader (whose authority trumped that of Dery), had once ruled that Jewish law permitted the exchange of land in return for lasting peace. Seen as an example of Yosef’s moderate interpretation of halakha, that ruling explains Shas’ behavior when the Oslo Accords came up for a Knesset vote. Shas could have sunk the deal with a no vote but abstained, thus ensuring its passage.

For all its claims to represent a different Jewish Orthodoxy, Shas has derived considerable authority from its ties to the Ashkenazi religious elite, in particular its “Lithuanian” branch of ultra-Orthodoxy. 

This connection is most obvious in Shas’ attire of black suits, white shirts and large brimmed hats – an aesthetic inspired by Eastern Europe rather than the Middle East. 

Moreover, leaders like Dery and others received their religious training at “Lithuanian” yeshivas. Since knowledge of Yiddish was a prerequisite for advancement in the Ashkenazi yeshiva world, there are Shas rabbis who have learned to speak the language, even though their parents may have come from the Arabic-speaking world. 

Unorthodox BY Eliran Malka.Credit: YARON SHERF / LEV CINEMAS
"The Unorthodox" by director Eliran Malka.Credit: Yaron Scharf / Lev Cinemas

Universal and local

Reading interviews from the earliest days of Shas,  Malka says he saw a story of a group that is “more human and innocent, exposing its initial motivations.”

JFF CEO Dr. Noa Regev says that despite its local focus, “The Unorthodox” was chosen as the opening film because of its “universal” appeal. 

“This is the story of an individual who decides to make a change in society,” she says. Indeed, the film does tell the universal story of a political underdog with humor, panache and close attention to period-specific detail.

The film’s high profile (it opens in Israel the same day as the JFF premiere) is perhaps a further sign that after decades of denial, the racism experienced by Mizrahim is being increasingly acknowledged in modern Israel. 

We are finally learning more about the discriminatory policy of settling North African immigrants in remote parts of the country (the “periphery”) in the ’50s and ’60s; the alleged kidnapping of thousands of mostly Yemenite babies in the ’50s has come increasingly to the fore; and there is an official body that has been set up with the ostensible purpose of correcting decades of government-mandated ignorance about Mizrahi history and culture.

These abuses and many others have fueled explicitly Mizrahi political movements from the state’s inception, but Shas alone has managed to achieve longevity and huge electoral success. Malka hopes his film helps to explain why. 

“One of the reasons,” he believes, is that Shas “offered a positive, uplifting message. It promised to restore the crown to its former glory,” he adds, referring to Shas’ famous slogan.

The tragedy of Shas – a theme the film dwells on – is that though it was born with genuinely revolutionary pretenses, the party only grew by catering to mainstream Israeli politics and assuming much of its cynicism. In several scenes, characters in the movie conclude that their cultural values are an obstacle to success in Israel. 

“In order for a Mizrahi party to succeed, it had to become Ashkenazi,” Malka sums up. 

"The Unorthodox" by director Eliran Malka.Credit: Yaron Scharf / Lev Cinemas
"The Unorthodox" by director Eliran Malka.Credit: Yaron Scharf / Lev Cinemas

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