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Mediterranean Quarterly 12.3 (2001) 128-143

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The Synagogue as Civil Society, or How We Can Understand the Shas Party

Omar Kamil

We teach our children the things that are relevant to them: Jewish history, Sephardi religious customs, Torah, Mishna, Jewish values, and not the French Revolution.

--Senior Shas activist in an interview in Jerusalem, 19 April 2000

In the south of Israel, far from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem but not very far from Beer Sheva, lies the poor, sleepy town of Yeruham. In the 1999 Knesset elections, the results for Yeruham were clear: One Israel, 8.6 percent; Likud, 14.3 percent; Shas, 30.1 percent. Yeruham, which recently made headlines in Israel for its record unemployment figures (12.5 percent), was established in the 1950s as a "development town" 1 and is inhabited today mostly by the families of immigrants and their descendants from Arab and Islamic countries, the so-called Sephardim. 2 [End Page 128]

Constituting about half the Israeli Jewish population, 3 the Sephardim are regarded as being relatively poor and working-class, having a low social status, often living far from the main cities, and considering themselves religiously traditional (mesortim). Politically, in the 1950s they supported the dominant Ashkenazi-linked establishment, represented in Mapai. Since the middle of 1960s they have become a major political force by solidly voting for the Right, especially for the Herut (freedom), later Likud. 4

Neither the Israeli political Left nor Right, which are both Ashkenazi, has succeeded in integrating the Sephardim into Israeli political, social, and economic life. The new hope of the Sephardim is called the Shas Party. 5 Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that Israeli political, social, and cultural development since 1983 cannot be fully comprehended without understanding the genesis and development of the power of Shas, the haredi Sephardi party. 6 Formed in 1983, Shas won four Knesset seats in its first appearance at the polls. In the 17 May 1999 general election, it won a staggering 17 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, only two less than Likud, the second largest party (see table 1). It attracted support among the Sephardim who live in the country's poorest development towns and neighborhoods.

In this essay I aim to explain the social success of Shas among the [End Page 129] Sephardim. Within the framework of the civil society debate, I argue that Shas offers the Sephardi what the Israeli state fails to do: integration into Israeli society through a network of educational and social service institutions. Adopting political strategies akin to those used by Islamist movements throughout the Arab world, Shas penetrated the Israeli state by bypassing it. Through its activities, the leadership of Shas aims to create a new Jewish cultural identity based on the Sephardi Jewish custom (minhag).

The Civil Society Debate in the Middle East

The term civil society has had different meanings, not only in a theoretical framework but also in various social contexts. 7 However, the expression is used today to indicate how groups, clubs, and organizations act as a buffer between state power and the citizen's life.

Civil society does not work as a "bubble" within the state but is strongly related to it. It cannot be regarded as a voluntary association within the state but as a state-free zone, with an alternative concept of social relations and social orders. 8 With regard to the religious institutions and their functions as [End Page 130] a part of civil societies, the debate on civil society in the Middle East, particularly, deals with the role of Islamist organizations. 9 These include the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Jordan, and Syria and the National Salvation Front in Algeria, for example. According to Baruch Kimmerling, where the state defines itself in Islamic terms, civil society defines itself in secular or other nonreligious terms, and vice-versa. The rise of civil societies in the Middle East has led to growing interest in state-society relations. Why does the state in the Middle East allow the development or the...


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