Analysis |

It's Not Gay Weddings That Will Spell the End of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party

It's the fact that the former kingmakers have lost their way

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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File photo: Shas party leader, Aryeh Deri.
File photo: Shas party leader, Aryeh Deri.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

With or without MK Yigal Guetta, Shas is a party in decline, a pale shadow of its former self that looks apprehensively toward the future. It had two decades of double-digit Knesset seats, but those days won’t return. Not only have its voters evaporated, but the party itself has lost its way since the death of its spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

It stands for nothing and looks like a bunch of hacks who wandered into the Knesset by mistake. Polls predict it will get five or six seats in the next election, just like when it started out three decades ago. Its chairman, Arye Dery, spends days in police interrogation rooms. His predecessor, Eli Yishai, threatens to eat into its fragile electoral support in the next election. Nothing good awaits.

It’s not clear whether the Guetta affair will help or hurt Shas. But it highlights the weakness of the party’s leader. No MK is closer to or more loyal to Dery than Guetta. Dery brought him into politics. Privately, he says, “I trust Yigal more than all of them.”

But Dery was forced to part with this man he loves due to pressure from the ultra-Orthodox public and several benighted extremist rabbis, including Shalom Cohen, the head of the party’s Council of Torah Sages. Had this incident occurred in Yosef’s day, Dery would almost certainly have managed to wangle a different decision.

Guetta’s unforgiveable sin was saying publicly (in an interview with Army Radio two weeks ago) that love of his sister and her son led him to attend his nephew’s wedding to another man. Since then, the Shas world has moved. Hell froze over, the sea caught fire, and we in the secular media didn’t even know. A real failure.

“All kinds of kids and rabbis,” as one Dery associate put it, took aim. Recently, someone suggested Guetta apologize for attending his nephew’s wedding. He refused. “I’ll never apologize,” he said. “If these rabbis can get along with five Knesset seats, I have nothing to do there. I’m what I am; they should know how to take me.”

Dery was upset. He didn’t want his friend to go, but he’s no longer the old Dery. His old age doesn’t flatter his youth, which also wasn’t great.

The shaming of Guetta was so intense that he had to resign as Shas’ secretary-general, though not yet from the Knesset, which is in recess. Incidentally, the wedding took place two years ago, before he was an MK. In Shas, some crimes are not only unforgivable but also have no statute of limitations.

Not long ago, Dery appointed the former MK and minister Shlomo Benizri, who had been sentenced to four years in jail for taking bribes, as editor-in-chief of the party newspaper, Yom Leyom. The rabbis didn’t revolt, social media wasn’t abuzz. No wonder Benizri, one of the most corrupt people ever to serve in Israel’s government, preached morality to the errant MK Wednesday night.

Dery himself is a convicted criminal who did jail time for taking bribes. Today, he’s his party’s senior representative in the government. “The righteous shall inherit the earth?” No, criminals will. In Shas, apparently, everything is forgivable except attending a relative’s same-sex wedding.

Guetta is no great liberal. In the past, he termed homosexuality a sickness, as do many of his colleagues. (Dery, incidentally, does not.) But in this case, he evinced a tolerance and inclusivity that’s virtually nonexistent among ultra-Orthodox MKs. Yet even this tiny candle was snuffed.

With it went another piece of whatever satisfaction Dery holds on to in the job he resumed in 2013. He recently said he’s sick of it all. Nobody will be shocked if he, too, doesn’t last until the next election.

Yossi Verter's full column will appear in Friday's Haaretz.

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