Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Clout of Orthodox Jews Rises despite Scandal

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Clout of Orthodox Jews Rises despite Scandal

Article excerpt

Thousands of excited fans pack the Tel Aviv sports stadium, cheering and waving. Yet this is no athletic event, but a mass rally of supporters of Israel's ultra-Orthodox Shas party - a movement growing in muscle by virtue of its raw voting strength, yet reeling beneath the weight of a corruption scandal so serious it could result in indictments and even bring down the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Shas was established in 1984 to represent Jews of Sephardic origin - literally meaning Spanish, but referring mostly to those from North African and Middle Eastern countries. The name Shas is actually an acronym for "Sephardic Guardians of the Torah," but the party has always been as much about empowering a disadvantaged ethnic group as it has about safeguarding religious fundamentals.

By encouraging thousands of secular Israelis to adopt religious lifestyles - and with higher birthrates among Sephardim than among Israelis of European origin - Shas has become Israel's third-largest political party. Some would also add one of the most powerful: Shas is rooted in neither the left- nor right-wing and is thus desperately needed by any government in order to form a coalition. But Shas's political leaders have time and again found themselves embroiled in corruption cases that might be thought to chip away at the party's legitimacy. Among the Shas parliament members currently under investigation is party leader Aryeh Deri. Still, Mr. Deri and Shas have retained popular support. At a recent rally billed as a memorial for 73 soldiers killed in a helicopter crash in February, Deri's devotees were as loyal as ever, shouting "Aryeh roars!"- his name means "lion" in Hebrew. A newly religious singer performed a song composed especially for Deri:"Rabbi Deri the righteous one, who brings merit to the masses. He will not stop nor cease spreading Torah for its own sake." But it isn't only religious Sephardim who give this kind of support to Deri. Among the public he was at one time considered to be the most likely man to be Israel's first religious prime minister. The Moroccan-born, Deri was first appointed interior minister at 29, and lauded as the brilliant protege of the Sephardim's revered Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. …

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