These days, anybody who is familiar with Israeli politics, has probably heard of Shas, the Sephardic religious party. It is typically believed that the former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, Ovadia Yosef, was responsible for forming Shas. Indeed, the wording in Wikipedia is misleading:
Yes, it is likely that the political party was formed by Ovadia Yosef. But the movement itself was not. I was actually involved in the movement before R. Yosef even knew about it, so I do speak with some authority on the matter.
A dear friend of mine, at the time, had invited me to a meeting in a synagogue located in the Bukharian quarter of Jerusalem. She was friendly with one or two of the speakers and thought I might be interested. A few days later, I showed up at the meeting, which was held in semi-secrecy in the evening. There were about 20 or 30 of us and refreshments were served. While I do not remember the details of each of the two or three speeches that were given, I do remember that the organization was not intended to be a political one at that stage. Instead, it was intended to be something of a civil rights group for Mizrahi Jews in Jerusalem. A serious question was also raised: at what point should R. Ovadia Yosef be notified of the existence of our organization? Though the group was not, at that point, political, everybody knew that this might change. It was believed that R. Yosef was beholden to the established, and almost exclusively Ashkenazic, religious political party – Agudat Israel. There was a real fear that he would quash our movement even before it got started. As a member of the establishment, there were doubts that R. Yosef could be trusted at this early stage.
The next meeting I attended involved hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Word had gotten out. At some point (I cannot remember exactly when) we were given flyers to hand out. The movement had definitely become political and was going to run for seats on the Jerusalem city council. The backing of R. Yosef had been secured as well, and this was decisive. A war of flyers broke out, with the established (and very powerful) Agudat Israel playing dirty tricks to dissuade people from supporting the new party.
In the very beginning of its political phase, Shas was known as “Shat”, which stands for “Shomre Torah” (keepers of the Torah). A few flyers were printed up, initially, using this acronym. It soon became known that another registered political party was already using those letters. There was some discussion as to what to call ourselves instead. A decision was made to change it to “Shas”, which is also an acronym for “the six orders of Mishna” and is symbolic of the body of Jewish law.
I was fairly active in promoting the new movement back then. It seemed to me that their grievances were legitimate ones. The establishment party, Agudat Israel, had a stranglehold on political power within the religious community. Though it received much of its support from Sephardic/Mizrahi Jews, very little benefit or recognition was seen in return. Agudat Israel cronies used taxpayer monies for their own pet causes and organizations. The uppermost flyer, pictured above, reads, “a public representative or a private representative”.
The rise of Shas was a good example of a truly grass-roots movement succeeding beyond its wildest dreams – and in a very short amount of time*. I was a volunteer during the first Jerusalem election that included Shas. We counted the votes at the end of the day. The feeling of triumph, when it became clear that Shas had beaten Agudat Israel by a large margin, is hard to describe. Each party was represented among the volunteers and the faces of those who represented Agudat Israel changed over the course of the counting process. On their faces I saw disappointment, frustration – and finally a forced respect. There was a new kid on the block and they had no choice but to resign themselves to the new reality.
Many years have passed since those exciting days. Is Shas now just another political party? Is it just as corrupt as the others? Has it worked toward worthy goals and sought to strengthen the traditions of the people who voted it into power? I am not sure I want to know; I fear the worst. As for me, I did what seemed right at the time and those memories continue to bring me pleasure. As for the future, there are other banners to carry and other battles to be fought. So much of the fun is in the fight that, at times, victory seems almost irrelevant.
* All this took place in 1983 and 1984