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Thursday, 22 June, 2000, 12:37 GMT 13:37 UK
Shas: Breaking the Israeli mould

Crumbling and corrupt religious schools triggered a crisis
By BBC News Online's Martin Asser

Shas - an acronym for the Sephardic Guardians of the Torah - is the only religious party in Israel with real political clout these days.

The party's meteoric rise since its foundation in the 1980s has effectively unwound the Left-versus-Right nature of Israeli politics.


Shas facts
Ultra-Orthodox party for Oriental Jews
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Shas has held cabinet posts in governments of both sides since 1992 and its spiritual leader commands a following of hundreds of thousands of the ultra-Orthodox faithful of Middle Eastern origin.

But this growing influence, and the party's insistence on the supremacy of the Jewish scriptures, has posed serious questions about Israeli democracy.

Catalyst

Since Prime Minister Ehud Barak came to power in 1999, Shas has clashed with secular cabinet colleagues over its crumbling network of religious schools.


Yishai and Yosef
Party leader Eli Yishai and Rabbi Yosef, the real power in Shas
The schools are a mainstay of party activity, with 40,000 places to rear children in the Shas brand of Jewish fundamentalism, but they were anathema to the cabinet's arch-secularist Yossi Sarid, who resigned as education minister on Wednesday.

Mr Sarid came down heavily on the schools, which are bankrupt from mismanagement and tainted by corrupt practice.

Shas officials are renowned for bending and breaking the rules - including setting up fictitious religious institutions - to secure public funds to support their school system.

It is ironic that this clash - unrelated to the peace process - should drive a wedge through Mr Barak's coalition, perhaps rendering the prime minister incapable of pushing through tough decisions to make peace.

First of Zion

Shas was established in the 1980s by an influential former Sephardic chief rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, who refused the graceful retirement expected of him after he failed to extend his term in the post.


Barak
Many believe Barak has mishandled the crisis
The rabbi has, unilaterally, retained the title and picturesque costume of his former position ever since.

Party policy is set by its Council of Torah Sages, which the rabbi dominates. It is a world of apocalyptic religious discourse where decisions belong to God and those who interpret God's law.

From the sages, through the politicians, and down to the party's grassroots, Shas is also the master of sectarian politics, representing a minority which feels discriminated against in all spheres of life in Israel.

Future of Israel

The party has never been particularly hawkish on peace process issues, until now promoting a doctrine of withdrawal from occupied lands if that preserves Jewish lives.

Its position on Eretz or Greater Israel is at odds with other ultra-Orthodox movements, which seek to secure Israeli sovereignty over all the lands they believe were promised to the Jews by God, whatever the cost.


Shas supporter studying scripture
The scripture reigns supreme in Shas decision-making
But Shas does appear sensitive to the possibility of being the only religious party in an alliance with the secular left to sanction giving back land to the Palestinians.

That is why it has said it will not automatically support further territorial concessions.

Shas appears to have emerged strengthened from current crisis, a fact which may increase the wider tensions over Israel's destiny as a democratic state at the same time as being a Jewish one.

This is unlikely to be the last time the religious and secular camps clash. It could even mark the beginning of a new era of political instability.

Shas is the standard bearer for a constituency which wants more power than it was given in Israel's European-led, non-denominational Zionist past.

And it has now shown that it can paralyse an ambitious government in under a year, although that government is widely thought to have handled the crisis badly.

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See also:

16 Jun 00 | Middle East
Analysis: Barak's coalition crisis
15 Jun 00 | Middle East
Arafat scorns Israeli peace effort
01 May 00 | Middle East
Barak faces coalition break-up
13 Mar 00 | Middle East
Israeli PM defeats no-confidence vote
29 Dec 99 | Middle East
Shas signals Israeli coalition deal
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