Redrawing the Old Lines

A new faction has taken root in the NRP. It is comprised of Sephardi Jews who are inclined to switch allegiances, and move to Shas; by the same token, a new faction in Labor favor sliding toward the Likud, and might even cast protest ballots for Shas.

The cordial meeting between Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu at the bar mitzva of Yosef's grandson was a surprising spectacle. Eliyahu was in the past Yosef's bitter adversary, and a painful symbol of his fall from the prestigious chief rabbi spot during his second term. In the past, Yosef did not mince words when speaking to rabbis and notables from around the world about Eliyahu and his patron, minister Moshe Nissim - and yet there he was at the bar mitzva, speaking warmly with Rabbi Eliyahu, reminding him that vile, malicious people fill the ranks of the National Religious Party, and urging him to join Shas.

No doubt, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since Shas was established. Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, whom Yosef groomed as a possible rival to Eliyahu, has rebelled against the Shas spiritual leader, and also Shas' relations with the NRP have had their twists and turns.

Shas needed some reinforcement before the upcoming elections, and it is getting what it needs. Slowly, people are coming to the Shas fold, including lost, prodigal sons. At first glance, it seems that the NRP has become more moderate, and that the positions of Effi Eitam and Rabbi Eliyahu have weakened; but in actual fact, this NRP moderation process is an illusion, and developments in the NRP will play into Shas' hands.

The glee of commentators over the apparent power shift in the NRP derives from a common error. Too often, analysts view the rabbis and their political stances as the whole picture. It appears that Rabbi Eliyahu, who has until recently been viewed as the national religious camp's religious leader, has been pushed aside by more moderate NRP figures, including women who insisted on receiving places on NRP's Knesset list despite Eliyahu's opposition. And it seems that Effi Eitam, who tried to ride the national religious horse, had to swallow a bitter pill when one of his candidates was not selected for the Knesset list.

But the truth in the NRP is different. Veteran members of the party's central committee, who are upper-middle class Ashkenazim, wanted to keep the NRP on their terms - they wanted to preserve the party's old conservative essence, while putting it in a different cast. They wanted a right-wing party, but also one with a more modern, inclusive ethos, as in the days of the late Zevulun Hammer. More than anything, they wanted an elitist party, one whose image suits their own self-image: they wanted a well-educated NRP, a party that is more rational and broad-minded, and less mystical and less worried about charms and curses.

Even the election of Gila Finkelstein, rather than Yehudit Shilat (the wife of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi from Gush Etzion, who actually symbolized the feminist revolution that has transpired on settlements, perhaps with greater intensity than in the center of the country) reflects a middle-class yearning for a moderate Tel Aviv woman who favors privatization (Finkelstein supports privatization in education), and a fear of militant ultra-Orthodox women.

Shas leaders instantly discerned the changes in the NRP, and gleefully branded them discrimination against Sephardi Jews (the sudden friendship between Yosef and Eliyahu should be understood in this context). This Shas interpretation is simplistic and over-generalized. True, the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin) have fallen out of the NRP, and the Ashkenazi Jews have taken back their old senior positions. But divisions between camps in the NRP are more diverse and complex; they reflect differences between the periphery and central Israel, and they reemphasize ethnic tensions that had been obscured by social-cultural, geographic and economic gaps. These socio-economic gaps and ethnic (Sephardi-Ashkenazi) differences are congruent, and the divisions can also be called class differences.

Behold, a miracle: What happened in the Labor Party has transpired in the NRP. Labor also elected a chairman who fits the fantasies of well-established party regulars, party stalwarts who were fed up with the crass Likud-like populism exuded by former chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. Now they want Mitzna to move to the center, from the left. The political elites, who felt that their parties were snatched from them while they were sleeping, have awakened.

The results are clear, and destructive. A new faction has taken root in the NRP. It is comprised of Sephardi Jews who are inclined to switch allegiances, and move to Shas; by the same token, a new faction in Labor favor sliding toward the Likud, and might even cast protest ballots for Shas.

Those who say that they are sick and tired of ethnic grandstanding, of using ethnic discrimination as an excuse to reap political capital, are correct; yet the process by which the ethnic-class divisions are crystallizing as political camps bears notice. One is secular and middle-class: Shinui stands at its head, and it is followed by the Labor and Meretz parties. The other is populistic-religious, and Likud leads it, with Shas at its tail. This might not be manifestly ethnic, but the old gaps continue to grow rather than narrow.