Shas Becomes First ultra-Orthodox Party to Join WZO

The World Zionist Organization's executive yesterday approved Shas' request to join, making it the first ultra-Orthodox party to join the world's premier Zionist organization.

To gain entry to the body founded by Theodor Herzl Shas had to amend its party bylaws to incorporate the Jerusalem Covenant, which was adopted by all the Zionist parties in 2004.

The covenant reaffirms the foundations of Zionism and the centrality of the state of Israel in the life of the Jewish people. For the procedural purposes of the WZO, Shas formed a joint party with World Likud.

Shas' director general, MK Yaakov Margi, sought yesterday to downplay the significance of the event.

"This isn't a historic move, it's a procedural move," he said. "There's nothing earth-shaking about saying Shas is a Zionist party. We operate as such, we join governments and are partners in the Zionist experience, (our members) serve in the army. There's nothing new here."

During the last Knesset term, he said, Shas joined the Zionist Congress, but the latest step took more time, because it involved amending the party's bylaws.

The party's ruling Council of Torah Sages "concluded that there is no contradiction between our being ultra-Orthodox and our being Zionists and lovers of Zion." Margi said, adding that Shas spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, had served as one of Israel's chief rabbis "and is there an ultra-Orthodox MK today who doesn't see the importance of Jerusalem, who doesn't see himself as part of Zion?"

Yesterday's decision adds another twist to the riddle of Shas' true attitude toward Zionism and the state. On one hand Yosef vehemently opposes drafting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students. On the other he orders Shas congregations to recite the prayer for the welfare of Israel Defense Forces soldiers.

Shas MKs serve as cabinet ministers - which MKs from the other ultra-Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism, refuse to do - yet at the same time Yosef has ruled that his followers may not file suit in Israel's secular civil courts.

Regardless of Yosef's positions, the reality is that most of the Sephardi party's voters have always been traditional rather than ultra-Orthodox and over the past few years the party has been actively courting Ashkenazi religious Zionists as well.

The decision to join the WZO dovetails nicely with that effort.

On the WZO alliance with Likud, a secular party, Margi said he did not think Shas would have been welcomed by the only other religious party in the organization, the National Religious Party. Moreover, he said, Shas wants to be able to exert its own influence on Diaspora Jewry, rather than being subordinated to the NRP.