'They Say Ugly Things About Us'

Newsweek, December 13, 1999
By Matt Rees

Shlomo Ephraim, an activist for the Shas Party who wears the black suit and fedora of an ultra-Orthodox Jew, is a purveyor of letters. For the equivalent of 25 cents, Shas will add a single character to a Torah scroll. When enough letters have been bought, a $30,000 scroll for a synagogue can be completed. Clamoring to buy, a dozen religious Jewish women in bright headscarves crowd around Ephraim's table on a Jerusalem street. He gives them receipts bearing the Shas Party's name and takes their addresses. "I've sold 4,000 letters in just a week to remedy the bad state of Judaism in Israel," Ephraim exults. Etti Cohen, a 40-year-old mother of nine, buys a letter for each member of her family. "It brings luck," she says. "It brings good to one's house."

Such superstition also brings voters to Shas. Or so, at least, its detractors claim. But the party's true believers say the political establishment is using the party's unconventional methods as a pretext for persecuting its leaders. With campaigning underway for the May 17 elections, the fight took center stage last week when Shas leader Aryeh Deri, the kingmaker in the last several coalition governments, was convicted of taking $155,000 in bribes, fraud and breach of trust. Deri's conviction serves only to further polarize Israel's secular and religious voters.

The ultra-Orthodox party, which since 1984 has represented Sephardic Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin, clearly has mastered the art of mixing its ethnic politics with religion. Critics say selling letters allows Shas to make political gain from the superstitious notions of people like Cohen. Shas used to distribute amulets, tiny bottles of oil or pieces of parchment blessed by the party's rabbis, which it said would bring God's blessing in return for a vote for Shas. "It was an extortion," says Hava Segev, a Shas voter in the poor Negev town of Netivot. Shas got a record 10 Knesset seats at the last election, making it the third-largest bloc and the biggest religious party. Last fall, Israel's courts banned amulets, likening the practice to vote-buying. So Shas has found another way to bestow the blessings of its rabbis on ordinary people—the Torah letters.

Shas has built its power stoking Sephardic resentment over discrimination by European Ashkenazic Jews in the early years of the Jewish state. "Even today, people in the Labor Party believe that we are primitive, that we come from the Third World," says Shlomo Benizri, a senior Shas legislator. "They say many ugly things about us." Party leader Deri is the master of such rhetoric, but he also set up a network of 1,800 free schools and kindergartens to attract even secular Sephardic voters to Shas. Still, Deri stands convicted of using his position as Interior minister to funnel money to yeshivas run by Shas supporters and, in return, receiving holidays and cash bribes that paid for a big house in Jerusalem and a Jacuzzi. Hardly what you'd expect from a man who cast himself as Rabbi Robin Hood. Yet outside the Jerusalem District Court last week, supporters prayed loudly for Deri and handed out buttons bearing his face and the slogan strong and blessed. "We have Sephardic pride because of Deri," says Israel Ochana, a Shas activist in the crowd. "The voters are not stupid. They will see how the Ashkenazis were determined to squeeze the juice out of our hero."

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