The Patron and His Right-hand Man

For a brief moment last night, it looked as if history was repeating itself. Shortly after 10 P.M., when Rabbi Reuven Elbaz finished his regular lecture, a group of students surrounded him and began singing a song from the "J'Accuse" film that Aryeh Deri made in 1999 after he was convicted of taking bribes.

Elbaz had two former students whom he termed his "right hand." Both were given places on Shas's Knesset slate, and each in turn was convicted of corruption. The first was Ofer Hugi, who was convicted in 2006 of defrauding the state by setting up a fictitious educational institute. Yesterday, it was Shlomo Benizri's turn. But neither case made waves within Shas.

If yesterday's verdict nevertheless bears the seeds of a political upheaval, it lies not in Benizri's conviction for bribe-taking, but in that of his patron, Elbaz, who was convicted of acting as a go-between for the bribe and conspiring to commit a crime. Shas has already seen several of its MKs convicted, and some were even jailed. But it has never had a leading rabbi convicted of corruption on such a scale.

Elbaz is one of the leaders of the "return to religion" revolution that has brought masses of voters to Shas. His students alone number in the thousands, and his influence undoubtedly reaches tens of thousands. Today, some 500 people study at Elbaz's Or Hahayim Yeshiva, located in Jerusalem's Bukharin neighborhood.

To his students, the crimes of which Elbaz was convicted make no difference. "We feel as if we owe Rabbi Elbaz our lives," said one. "Aside from the fact that he brought us here, every one of us here owes him for the emotional help he gives us. People here are very angry at the court and the media."

Elbaz does not sit on Shas's Council of Torah Sages, but he is nevertheless considered one of the most important Sephardi rabbis, and therefore one of the Sephardi party's most influential personages. In 1993, he quarreled with Shas's unquestioned leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, but in recent years, he has returned to the inner circle. Often, he gives the lecture that precedes Yosef's weekly lecture, an honor reserved for the rabbis closest to Yosef. Some Shas activists even speculated yesterday that Yosef might come to court himself to serve as a character witness for Elbaz - something he did not even do for Deri, then the party's chairman.

"No one in Shas today will go out into the streets for Benizri," said one activist. "But Rabbi Elbaz has a real following - thousands of people who would go through fire and water for him ... Even if Benizri goes to jail, there will be no significant protest. But if Rabbi Elbaz is sent to jail, there will be a huge storm."