Israel's ultra-Orthodox Belong on the Left

Then Labor party leader Shimon Peres (R) confers with Shas's Yair Levy, March 15, 1990
Natan Alpert/GPO

A few years ago, I took part in an international relations course run by the Geneva Initiative. The purpose of the course was to allow young people taking their first steps in the world of politics to study in depth some of the diplomatic plans that were on the agenda at the time. One of my first memories from those meetings is a whisper from one of my colleagues: “What are all these ultra-Orthodox people doing here?”

Indeed, more than 30 percent of the participants were Haredi men who were also Shas party activists. Their prominent presence did not really surprise me. Over time, my other colleagues, who did not grow up in a religious environment like I did, and who were used to seeing ultra-Orthodox people mainly on TV, got used to their presence.

One of the common criticisms of Shas focuses on the fact that its elite went through Ashkenazi “Lithuanian” seminaries, and that aside from its school system, with its key concepts a welcome feature, the leaders of this most Mizrahi party still strive to obtain legitimacy from Ashkenazi Orthodox leaders.

Thus, as an example, Shas leader Arye Dery studied at the “Lithuanian” Hebron yeshiva. He started out at Porat Yosef, the flagship of Mizrahi religious seminaries, which was also attended by former Shas leader Eli Yishai, who did not continue in an Ashkenazi yeshiva. Instead, Yishai moved from Shas to the Ashkenazi faction of the extreme right, the one with radical activist Benzi Gopstein, a follower of Meir Kahane.

But it turns out that wanting to be legitimized by Ashkenazi luminaries is not limited to the world of Torah study. Since 2013, it’s also in the world of politics. I haven’t met one political observer who can explain to me what’s the connection between lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich and Shas’ Yigal Guetta, or what’s the difference between Dery’s ideas regarding a diplomatic solution to the conflict with the Palestinians (his real ones, not the populist ones) and the ones held by Labor MK Itzik Shmuli. Incidentally, most of Shmuli’s bills, which were ultimately embraced by the cabinet, were approved by Shas.

Back to the Geneva Initiative. It was obvious to all the participants that when it came to issues of diplomatic solutions, there was no more natural partnership than between Shas activists and those of Labor and Meretz. Shas received less than 10 percent of the vote in ideological West Bank settlements, meaning that all the issues leading to obsequiousness and groveling could be resolved in a few talks with a decent psychologist. Perhaps then this party will stop pulling us by the ear toward a senseless political abyss.

Having wooed the Haredi seminaries in a manner that totally contradicts the Mizrahi religious worldview, the Shas leadership is now occupied with receiving a stamp of approval from the same bunch that derides it: the Ashkenazi elite some people call “new,” but which is actually identical to the one that scorned them 50 years  ago. The difference is that today its members are called Gopstein, Smotrich and Benjamin Netanyahu.

For both political and economic reasons, the most natural home for the ultra-Orthodox parties – especially Shas – is on the Israeli left. Reviewing the Knesset website shows that in the last two functioning Knesset plenaries, the 19th and 20th, most of the bills presented by Shas members were in cooperation with, or enjoyed the full support of lawmakers from Labor, Yesh Atid, Meretz and the Joint List – and vice versa. In other words, the tightest parliamentary cooperation took place between Shas and the left-wing parties.

So what’s the story? When will the party that etched the overturning of the old hegemonic order on its flag stop seeking legitimacy from the same hegemon which scorns it?