Why Voting for Dery and Shas Is a Win-win

Now freed of the Council of Torah Sages, Dery is the sole alternative to the Ashkenazi princes on the right and left. That is why democratic, socially oriented Mizrahim like me should vote for him.

Sami Shalom Chetrit
Dery at a Shas rally.
Dery at a Shas rally.Credit: David Bachar
Sami Shalom Chetrit

Two months ago, I wrote the following in an article in Haaretz: “I am always thinking about Arye Dery If he were brave and were to shake off the Council of Torah Sages, especially in the post-Rabbi Ovadia Yosef era, and were to establish a socially oriented movement with a strong attachment to Torah and tradition, but with democratic institutions (Adina Bar Shalom, Ovadia’s daughter, would help with this), and one that would support the termination of the occupation, as Dery has done in the past – I would declare now my willingness to forgo my place as head of his new social movement – should he dare to establish one – and become a loyal supporter” (“I’ll vote for the party that will make me its head,” Jan. 2).

I don’t write articles as a political commentator or as an expert on Israeli society, even though I have a Ph.D. in those subjects. I wrote that article for exactly the same reasons that prompted me to write to David Levy in April 1993, at the time deputy prime minister and foreign minister, during the period of the crisis in relations between him and Benjamin Netanyahu. Here’s part of what I wrote to Levy (also in the form of an article in Haaretz):

“Where are you headed now, David Levy? Since the period of the holy [Menachem] Begin, you have been fighting for the status that’s your due for having built Likud on Mizrahi votes [referring to Jews from Islamic lands]. Did Netanyahu fight? Did Dan Meridor fight? Did Benny Begin fight? Wake up, my brothers. Likud is not the party of the disadvantaged neighborhoods and towns A party of its kind will not address the issues of social justice, and will fuel the circle of enmity until an unavoidable catastrophe.

“If you lend a hand to Netanyahu’s party and to his cohorts, you are liable to abandon us to a situation of no political opposition. There is no one today to lead a movement of social justice to resolve the country’s social problems. There is no one to launch a true and direct process with the Arabs aimed at an era of reconciliation. Accordingly, I call on you to awaken and take responsibility as a leader. Arise and hoist the banner of social justice and true peace. Many myriads of the politically homeless will walk with you hand in hand.”

Apart from the differences in tone between the enthusiastic young man who wrote Levy back then, and the aging, cautious man who is writing today, it seems to me that I am pretty much repeating myself in my calls to the two most distinctive and most important Mizrahi leaders in the history of Israeli politics. By which I mean, the only ones who succeeded in getting hundreds of thousands of citizens out to vote. The question is whether history, too, is repeating itself and deceiving us.

The two have many other elements in common, besides their country of birth and the electric charisma that their sheer presence projects. The main point is that both of them took small ideological parties and transformed them into mass ruling parties. Both of them were closely familiar with the social-class analysis but shackled themselves to capitalist coalitions that eradicated every sign of social welfare in the country. Both personified the moderate policy line in the governments in which they served. Both of them loathe Netanyahu. And finally, when each of them faced the test of his life against Netanyahu, many Mizrahim on the right and on the left who had never voted Likud or Shas stood up for them.

Levy failed in the test of his life when he opted for a safe deal with Likud rather than run separately for the Knesset at the head of the party he formed in 1996, Gesher – even though private polls forecast that he would win 8 to 12 seats (I know, because I was there). Levy, who by universal consensus should have inherited the leadership of Likud after Yitzhak Shamir, did not accept the loss of his stately status – that is, having the dream of the premiership wrenched from him and transferred to the so-called prince from the elite commando unit. Netanyahu absorbed him into Likud and embraced him – suffocatingly.

Dery is now facing the test of his life, and not only against Netanyahu. This time we have to take into account the substantive differences between him and Levy. In contrast to Levy, Dery always identified himself as a Mizrahi (or a Sephardi until recently), and made his pitch to the Mizrahi communities, the most downtrodden groups in the Israeli society. Levy, as befit his status, identified himself as a worker from Beit She’an, a hardscrabble town, but also as a national leader, and he never ran for office at the head of an independent party.

Dery owes nothing to Netanyahu or to Isaac Herzog. He was born and grew up amid Mizrahi consciousness and an independent movement with a true collectivity that has been supporting that consciousness for 30 years. He passed the first and easy part of the test since reclaiming leadership of Shas in December, just before the party completed its “absorption” into the dross of the national right, which fleeces the poor, under the leadership of Eli Yishai, who never understood the meaning of the phrase “to restore glory as of yore.”

No one can ignore the shift Dery is fomenting day by day in a saliently social-economic direction, or his encounters with Mizrahim with socio-economic and political consciousness who support a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Many of my friends have openly declared their support for him and are thrilled at every socially oriented statement he makes. It is thus clear to everyone that Dery is freeing himself from the shackles of the Council of Torah Sages. The question of what Rabbi Ovadia Yosef would have said had he not passed away is of no relevance. All is amenable to interpretation now.

Going for broke

Arye Dery is going for broke: Either he’ll rake everything in or he’ll lose everything. His goal is to sweep up Mizrahi voters from the right and the left – Mizrahim who are fed up with the way Netanyahu just keeps marking time, but who don’t even glance at Herzog and Tzipi Livni. This time he’s calling on everyone to rally to his side.

Dery is aiming his campaign at those who are following Yishai aimlessly out of tribal and rabbinical loyalty, and also at Likud voters and potential Moshe Kahlon voters. Everything that Kahlon says to Mizrahim in subtext, Dery says openly and directly. Everything that Kahlon can do, Dery can do too, and more. Kahlon, like Levy, thinks he will raise his fist at Netanyahu – and then return to Likud and unseat him. But that has never happened. Even David Ben-Gurion failed to pull that off.

Kahlon isn’t Levy. He’s an episode. It would have been better if he’d remained in Likud and fought Netanyahu there.

For the first time, Dery is putting himself forward clearly as the head of an alternative movement to the leadership of the Ashkenazi princes on the right and on the left. I listen to every word he says. The commitments he’s declaring are serious. If he violates them after the election, it will be the end of him, politically. Because, on the one hand, he will lose the new Mizrahi support, including mine, and at the same time, he will lose the support of the rabbis, who will kick him out of the party once and for all. All they want is to hold on to the Shas institutions. Do they have social change in mind?

Thus, the responsibility Dery is assuming now is enormous. And the responsibility being assumed by prominent Mizrahim in backing him is just as great.

Let’s be direct: If Dery betrays the trust and support he’s being given, he’s the one who will be cast into the political wilderness, not us. We will collect the lessons and the people, and set out to establish an alternative mass-appeal Mizrahi party dedicated to social justice. Just as we created the Keshet Hamizrahi Sephardi Democratic Rainbow advocacy group after the disappointment in Levy. In the past 20 years, the members of Keshet shaped the new Mizrahi consciousness, giving rise to an independent generation of Mizrahim who are determined to recreate things from the ground up.

Disappointment, then, can only be good in terms of the Mizrahi awakening of recent years. Hence my conclusion that for the sake of the future revolution, mobilization to Shas and voting for that party is a win-win situation for the democratic Mizrahim. Dery might feel that he is recruiting us for his campaign, but he would do well to remember that a rope has two ends – we are recruiting him now for our revolution, which is in dire need of an engine. We hope he views this as a joint revolution.

The second part of the test, now and after the election, is the most difficult. Already now, in the little time remaining until the election, Dery must convert words into deeds. For example, by making non-Shas Mizrahim close advisers and part of his election team – women and men, and not in secret. After the election, those who will become the face of the party will be appointed to highly influential positions in socially oriented government ministries and in major cultural and social institutions.

Maybe Dery remembers the election commericials of the Mizrahi Tami party in the 1980s, which featured riveting personalities such as activist Vicki Shiran and singer Shlomo Bar. It worked. It was real.

Red lines to remember

We understand that the party’s structure and its candidates are a done deal in this campaign, over which we have no influence. We understand that only if Dery comes out of the election strong will he be able to foment the necessary changes in the party: to declare it open for new members, and set a date for a primary in another year. We won’t gain power in this election. We only have to consolidate ourselves and store up strength and ammunition. Dery must not forget all the red lines he’s laying down every day on the issues of housing, wages, health, education, Mizrahi representation in state institutions and a just distribution of resources for culture.

And Dery cannot be silent on the peace issue. If he’s wary of speaking out himself, let him quote remarks of Rabbi Yosef about the importance of returning the occupied territories in order to avert bloodshed. Quiet on the “security” front, Dery knows, will make the so-called “transparent” Israelis look inward, and they will start to demand economic and social security, too (as in the marvelous slogan of the Israeli Black Panthers: “We are national security, too”)

It’s also necessary to repair the spiritual and moral destruction that Eli Yishai has wrought on the Mizrahi public by allying himself with the extreme right and in xenophobia and hatred he has adopted toward all non-Jews. That’s not us. That is not the glorious Jewry of Sepharad (Spain). That is no more than an appendage to Zionist-Ashkenazi-messianic fanaticism. Neither Torah nor a path.

Why will I vote Shas? There are only two parties that represent poor families and transparent young people in Israel: the Arab Joint List and Shas. I believe in the vision of a place in which Jews and Arabs live together in peace and in mutual respect. Enough of the incitement and with the ruination of the soul. Imagine that one day these two parties will hold a third of the Knesset seats between them, and for the first time will force upon the country a peace-oriented coalition, which will take it on a new journey such as no Ashkenazi Zionist thinker has foreseen even in his greatest nightmares.

I first voted in 1981, for Tami. That was a huge disappointment, but from it I, like many others, grew and set out on a fascinating journey. I have never voted for a Zionist-Ashkenazi party, neither of the right nor the left. I gave my vote to the most oppressed group in Israel: the Arabs. That’s how I would want others to behave with me if I were a persecuted Jew and established a party – in Europe of the last century, say.

I admit that my hand always hovered above the Shas ballot in the voting booth, but I always refrained from supporting them. That’s because I always remembered the harsh criticism (which remains relevant) that I myself hurled at them for not occupying themselves with socially oriented legislation and for serving in the worst capitalistic coalitions created here.

Despite that bitter memory, this time I will cast my ballot for Shas, or more precisely for Dery. It’s not a protest vote. Not a Jewish vote. Not a nave vote. It’s a calculated vote. It’s a vote of mutuality: We will vote Shas and back Dery now, and after the election we will be at his door with the bill. From our point of view, that will be the first day of work ahead of the next election. That will be the third part of the test of Dery’s life, by which he will stand or fall. I hope he will stand.

Prof. Sami Shalom Chetrit is author of “The Mizrahi Struggle in Israel” (Hebrew, 2004) and “Intra-Jewish Conflict in Israel: White Jews, Black Jews” (Routledge, 2010).

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