Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Rabbi 'Ovadia Yosef, the Shas Party, and the Arab-Israeli Peace Process

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Rabbi 'Ovadia Yosef, the Shas Party, and the Arab-Israeli Peace Process

Article excerpt

One of the prominent religious parties in Israel, intimately involved in political decision-making, has been the Shas party, led by the late Rabbi 'Ovadia Yosef. This article examines four components of Rabbi Yosef 's political stance: (1) his view of Jewish religious law as a factor that moderates the force of changes of seemingly historical and revolutionary significance; (2) his opposition to radical messianism; (3) his desire to adopt independent positions; and (4) his role in the development of a Mizrahi, ultra-Orthodox stream of Zionism.

A bird's-eye view of the contemporary Middle East reveals the central role of religious parties in shaping the political agenda of the region. Israel is no different in this respect. While it is true that Israel is a nation-state founded by secular forces and that its secular elite is still strong, one cannot ignore two facts. First, religious parties play a leading role in Israeli governments. Second, religious parties' political positions have added weight in light of the fact that Israel is located on land to which deep religious significance is ascribed, both by the Muslim majority in the Middle East and by the Jewish majority in Israel. This fact, in and of itself, is enough to turn religious movements and their leaders into active participants in decisions of national significance. One of the prominent religious parties in Israel, intimately involved in political decision-making, has been the Worldwide Sephardic Association of Torah Guardians, an ethnic-based ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) party. It is better known to the Israeli public by its acronym, Shas.1

Shas was founded in 1984 as an ethnic political home for Haredi yeshiva students and alumni of Mizrahi (Middle Eastern or North African) descent who felt discriminated by Ashkenazic (of Central or Eastern European origin) Haredi society. Since its inception in 1984, Shas has become a significant political-religious force in Israeli society. Its main electoral growth came in the 1990s. At its peak, Shas was the third-largest and third-most influential party in Israeli society. In recent years - due to changes in the Israeli electoral system, internal difficulties within the party, and the secular reaction to its influence - its electoral strength has declined. Nevertheless, Shas remains a significant political player in the Knesset and the government.

Shas operates under the authority of its spiritual leadership, which directs the party and decides its path. From its inception, Shas's dominant spiritual leader was Rabbi 'Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013), one of the leading authorities on halacha (Jewish religious law) in contemporary Orthodox Judaism. Thanks to Rabbi Yosef's charisma, vast Torah knowledge, and reputation as a halachic authority, no one within Shas circles disputed his word. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Shas has developed from a party formed to represent Mizrahi yeshiva students into a party whose agenda, ideology, and goals were directed by one man. This is evident in the dominance of his halachic approach in Shas educational institutions.

The fact that Shas has an ultra-Orthodox outlook and depends on a hawkish constituency places it in the rightist camp of Israeli politics. However, at least one thing differentiated Shas from the other right-wing religious parties in Israel. Its spiritual leader, Rabbi 'Ovadia Yosef, maintained an independent political stance and was prepared to make territorial compromises with Arab states in return for full peace. The fact that he offered a detailed justification for this position and did not rule out political cooperation with leftist parties, distinguished Shas from the veteran Ashkenazi Haredi parties as well. Whereas most Haredi leaders have tended to remain silent about regional political issues, speaking out only on rare occasion, Rabbi 'Ovadia Yosef was in the habit of reiterating his dovish views time and time again.

This paper examines four components of Rabbi Yosef 's political stance: (1) his view of halacha as a factor that moderates the force of changes of seemingly historical and revolutionary significance; (2) his opposition to radical messianism; (3) his desire to adopt independent positions, and (4) his development of a Mizrahi, ultra-Orthodox stream of Zionism. …

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