Can a feminist Mizrahi woman find her political home in Shas?

Although it is run by ultra-Orthodox men and its path for social mobility is anchored in religion, Shas remains the only truly socially minded political party and is certainly the only Mizrahi party. One voter’s search for answers.

By Efrat Shani-Shitrit

Shas MK Aryeh Deri (Photo by
Shas MK Aryeh Deri (Photo by

A few weeks ago, flyers targeting the women of north Tel Aviv were posted around the suburban streets of one of its better-known neighborhoods, Ramat Aviv: “If you live in Ramat Aviv, don’t vote for us. If you work for someone who lives in Ramat Aviv: Only Shas.” Aryeh Deri, who until the most recent Knesset had not led the ultra-Orthodox party for 13 years, is back with a new, clear social message: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef [Shas’ spiritual figurehead, who died in 2013] called for taking care of the invisible people who have been left behind by the state, struggling to close societal gaps, fighting for hungry children, better education in country’s periphery, and the creation of more jobs. Should Ovadia’s message come into fruition, it would benefit both disempowered women and men.

Shas offers a Mizrahi-based agenda, a Mizrahi leader and Mizrahi members of Knesset — the diametrical opposite of other parties. There are many who critique the party for its non-social direction, and the fact that its former leader, Eli Yishai, took the party to the political far-right. But it is far more acceptable to harshly (and wrongly) criticize Shas for perpetuating social gaps and its lack of any real contribution to the periphery. There are those who also criticize Shas for being corrupt, though we must remember that this country’s elites act in ways that are far more detrimental than Aryeh Deri, who spent three years in prison for accepting bribes. The rise of the Mizrahim, and their inability to fit into any of the political templates that were available to Mizrahim before the establishment of Shas, brought on the ire of seculars, Religious-Zionists and the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox alike. It seems that Israel is incapable of having a Mizrahi political party with a clear Mizrahi agenda.

Read also: Shas’ challenge to both Right and Left

Public discourse in this country is blind to the fact that Shas’ proposed path for “strengthening” (a process of becoming more religious) provided one of the only avenues to improve their lives. Many Mizrahim, whose disempowered place in society allowed them very few ways to make a living, not to mention a death of cultural capital and in many cases a life of crime, were able to acquire religious education (through torah studies) and find a meaningful path toward a respectable life — through faith. This did not provide a perfect solution to the oppression of Mizrahim, yet it did provide more economic opportunities for people when other parties didn’t do a thing for them.

Journalist Avishai Ben-Haim recently wrote that he heard a Mizrahi mother speak on a religious radio station about the fact that she has five children: “Five are drug addicts, and two are in Shas.” Her words reflect a reality that is so far removed from those who denounce Shas, that I must wonder what exactly they or the political parties they vote for do for her sake.

We, as Mizrahim, cannot make do with a struggle for the middle class; most of us came from either the geographical or social periphery — we have an obligation to take care of the lower classes, which are only growing due to anti-welfare government policies. Today, the only party whose platform focuses on social activism for the weakest portions of Israeli society is Shas. The main question I will have to answer before making my way to the voting booth is whether I am willing to put my faith in a party that on the one hand does not fully represent me, yet on the other hand fights the good fight on the most burning issues?

Let’s look at Shas’ campaign promises:

– Land reform: Municipal taxes for “development towns,” enhancing public housing by allocating a certain percentage of apartments in every new apartment building.
– Raising the minimum wage.
– Lowering the VAT (value added tax, similar to sales tax) on 35 basic consumer products.
– More money taken from direct taxes (raising income tax) than from indirect taxes (lowering VAT).

As a Mizrahi feminist, I certainly will not be able to wholeheartedly support a party that has no female representation in the Knesset. On the other hand, I refuse to analyze the party and its internal processes through the prism of white feminism. It is very important that healthy developments take place within the public itself when it is ready. Even if I know that women must be able to serve as members of Knesset, this decision cannot come from the outside without any real acceptance from the side of the ultra-Orthodox public. Therefore, I am pinning my hopes on the newly-established women’s advisory council, and that it will have a wide impact.

Should Shas become a bigger, more open party in the upcoming elections, it is certainly possible that it will be another step toward a women’s revolution led by Adina Bar Shalom (Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s daughter). There is also a wonderful, brave group of ultra-Orthodox women who are demanding female representation in the Knesset. I hope that the women’s revolution will allow them a greater presence among ultra-Orthodox women in general, so that they demand change from below. That way, Sephardic rabbis will have no choice but to take them seriously, and perhaps even adopt the original, more moderate Sephardic approach.

Along with others who represent the majority of the Jewish public in Israel and who lack a political home, perhaps it is time to support a social, Mizrahi agenda — one that does not stem from a fear of ultra-orthodoxy, but rather respects and works alongside it for a shared future? Perhaps it is time that we can also influence the party, so that it can be an egalitarian, political home for us in the next elections?

This article first appeared in Hebrew on Haokets.

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