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Shas: The Haredi-Dovish Image in a Changing Reality
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Israel Studies 5.2 (2000) 32-77

Perspectives on Israeli Society




Two main issues stand at the center of Israel society's political agenda at the end of the 1990s: the peace process and the internal rifts. The various political players ascribe these issues a different importance, each in accordance with its world view and concrete purposes. Nevertheless, it is difficult and perhaps even impossible to obtain a central place in the Israeli political arena at the current time without presenting some position on both the peace process and the internal rifts. In other words, even if one of these is not really a prime concern of a certain political actor, the actor must relate to it in one way or another in order to be relevant -- for example, in order to attract voters or to join one or the other coalition alignment. Undoubtedly, the degree of authentic concern of the same actor -- party or leader -- influences the degree into which each of the two issues is delved, the relative degree of attention that is devoted to them, and the degree of clarity, salience, and ideational sophistication of the program that the political actor proposes on each issue. As noted, even if the actor's real interest in peace or in the issue of internal coherence is limited, to ignore even one of these two issues is today a political error that no actor possessing awareness will consciously make.

This phenomenon, in our view, is strongly manifested in the case of Shas. From the viewpoint of this party, the social aspect (religious and ethnic) is dominant; peace, in comparison, is relatively secondary. Although it is impossible not to relate to it, in our view this secondary status has meant that Shas, as a party, has never developed a definite position on the issue of the process in its different aspects -- territorial concessions, a Palestinian state, and the various ramifications of these. So as not to harm its capacity for political maneuvering, however, Shas adopted a strategy of creating a "smoke screen," and for years it has sought, and in fact succeeded, to maneuver between right and left under the cover of this ambiguity. This same ambiguity is based to a large extent on the myth of Shas's dovishness, which, as we shall see below, is not necessarily rooted in reality, whether on the level of the religious and political leadership, or on that of the voting public.

Over the years, the myth has taken hold in the Israeli political discourse that Shas is a "strange creature" on the national political scene -- a dovish-haredi [ultra-Orthodox] party. Ostensibly, this "strangeness" stems from the fact that, whereas it is has become clear that religiosity -- and all the more so haredut [ultra-Orthodox religiosity]--is connected to the other parties in Israel with strongly hawkish stances, Shas supposedly presents a unique blend of a high level of religiosity together with very moderate stances in regard to the peace process. In fact, this myth, the evidence for which we shall present below, has not received in-depth scrutiny up to now on the empirical plane, especially insofar as it pertains to the Shas voting public. Because of the focus on political and internal matters and mainly on religious-secular and Mizrakhi-Ashkenazi rifts, the journalistic inquiries and academic studies that have dealt with this party have related, with considerable justification, mainly to Shas's uniqueness as a party with a social-ethnic coloration and message. Similarly, some have examined Shas's special concept of Israeli nationalism and of Zionism, or concentrated on clarifying the uniqueness of the Mizrakhi haredut that it represents on the halakhic plane [Jewish religious law], as distinct from Ashkenazi haredut. All of this is against the background of the mounting attention to Shas that has accompanied the steady and impressive electoral growth of this party, beginning with its appearance in 1984, to the 1996 elections, in which it increased from six to ten mandates, and still more in the 1999 elections, when it almost doubled its strength to 17 mandates and became the third largest party in the Knesset, the two "large" parties actually not being...

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