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Middle east

The spiritual - and temporal - heart of Shas


Video by Marc DE CHALVRON

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2009-02-10

As the spiritual head of the Shas party, Rabi Ovadia Yosef is the man to meet with in the lead-up to the Feb. 10 polls. It was Shas, after all, that caused the collapse of Israel’s previous government. He could make or break the next.

FRANCE 24 Observers comment on the forthcoming elections


Surrounded by his entourage, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the founder and spiritual leader of Israel’s Shas party, conducts the early morning prayers at his personal synagogue in Jerusalem.

Standing in the front row at the morning prayers is Knesset member Rabbi Nissim Ze'ev.

The prayers done, Yosef disappears into his apartment. That’s when the waiting begins in the antechamber leading to his office.

Men, many dressed in the traditional ultra-orthodox Jewish garb, crowd outside the closed door waiting for an audience with the venerated octogenarian.

"You see them there?” says Ze’ev, pointing to the crowd of people waiting. “They asked for a meeting one or two weeks ago."

With days to go before the Feb. 10 legislative elections, Yosef is a much sought-after figure.

It was the Shas party that created the imperative for the Feb. 10 elections when the right-wing party that represents religious Jews from non-European backgrounds refused to join a coalition that Tzipi Livni of the centrist Kadima party was trying to cobble together.

In the end, Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, failed to get Shas’ support for entirely predictable reasons. The party, which represents Sephardic Jews, made two key demands: a substantial increase in child allowances, which would benefit its supporters who tend to have larger, poorer families. The second was a guarantee that in any peace negotiations with the Palestinians, the Israeli government would not agree to divide Jerusalem.

A political and spiritual heavyweight

Quite apart from his role as spiritual leader, Yosef is a political heavyweight in Israel as well.

And so, it’s hardly surprising that Knesset members such as Ze’ev line up patiently to meet their chief.

"The rabbi is the word of authority for our generation,” says Ze’ev, adding that the faithful “must respect all that he says. When our master says to vote Shas, it's a religious obligation."

Days before the elections, Ze’ev would like his spiritual and political mentor to take on the new man on the Israeli political bloc.

"I would like the rabbi in his weekly sermon on Saturday night, to speak about Shas and how we are different, especially compared to Lieberman."

Ze’ev is referring to Avigdor Lieberman, the Russian-born leader of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party whose rising popularity has proved to be one of the biggest surprises on the campaign trail.

‘If the rabbi says, then I will do’

At the Shas party headquarters, volunteer Yossi Moalem pledges his loyalty to Yosef. “If the rabbi says, then I will do," says Moalem simply.

It's this devotion that's guaranteed the party 10 seats in the Knesset. As a result, they feel free to use their power.

"I'm certain that Shas will be in the next government, regardless of who's prime minister and regardless of the result," says Moalem.

After causing the collapse of the Kadima government, Shas sees itself as part of a future Likud government. Their single objective is to have power in a coalition where they would serve the faithful.

Date created : 2009-02-06