Sunday 28 November 2010

Shas Shows its True Face

Two interviews published in local newspapers with ultra-orthodox Shas member of Knesset Chaim Amsellem have served to publicly expose some of the inner workings and beliefs of the Shas parliamentary party in a way not previously seen. Although operating within a democratic environment, the religious parties in the Knesset have a distinctly undemocratic way of working, and this has been challenged in the open by Rabbi Amsellem.

Israel's proportional representation system requires each party contesting Knesset seats to submit its list of prospective members of Knesset prior to any general election. The way in which the order of the names on the list is determined varies from one party to another. In the case of the non-religious parties, democratic primaries are held in which party members vote for those who wish to be placed on the list. The position the list of each prospective member of Knesset is determined by the results of the party vote. In the case of the ultra-orthodox Haredi parties, and the Shas party in particular, the list is drawn up by the "Council of Torah Sages". In the case of Shas, this is a council headed by the party's spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and includes rabbis and "wise men" who are members of Yosef's inner circle. Their decision is final and no appeals against it are offered. This council represents the final word on all major issues concerning the party, including decisions about participation in a coalition and policy on many important issues. It is remarkably undemocratic in its workings considering the democratic environment in which it operates.

The rebel Shas member of Knesset came out criticising some of the policies followed by Shas in a newspaper interview conducted a few weeks ago. In his interview published in Israel's Ma'ariv newspaper, he condemned strictures against conversion, growing joblessness and army evasion among yeshiva students and an absence of non-religious education for children. These criticisms amount to an attack on the very foundations and beliefs of the ultra-orthodox world. Their type of Jew is one who will study religious texts as a vocation in order to promote the religion in the most literal sense. This means that there is no need for secular education at schools - there will be no use for subjects that are not focused on the religion in their ideal world. In addition, young men and women are encouraged not to enlist for the army, but rather to attend yeshiva where they will further their religious education. This also sets the pattern for their future lives as young men are encouraged to remain for the rest of their days in this religious framework at yeshivas studying the religious texts. They are able to gain exemption from the army via a special deal struck between the state and the religious institutions many years ago. They are able to continue studying at yeshivas thanks to stipends granted to them out of government money, to allow them to continue their religious learning indefinitely.

Amsellem has recognised the effect on Israeli society of following this policy, which has resulted in a dramatic growth in the number of yeshiva students in Israel. Limiting the education at primary and secondary school level ill-prepares young people for the challenges of daily life, irrespective of the vocation chosen. The policy also reduces the number of young men and women enlisting in the army. In its current situation of being constantly under threat of attack, Israel needs all the soldiers it can get. Once these young men and women get married and begin to raise children, there is an increasingly unmanageable burden on the state arising from the responsibility to fund their stipends without receiving any contribution in return from employment.

To add insult to injury, it turns out that many of the young yeshiva students are not suited to religious study and have no desire to pursue it. There seems to be no exception for these young people, and they are forced to toe the line and be squeezed into the religious framework despite the obvious problem that they have no place there. The ultra-orthodox system does not make allowances for these young people to find alternative vocations and paths for development, where they may seek a more appropriate way for them to make their contribution to society. Chaim Amsellem was speaking out not only against the sausage machine system and uniform path expected from all Haredi young people, he was also speaking out in favour of directing these people towards a life that will allow them to have a useful place in society. This does not mean that they will be forced to leave the religious fold. On the contrary, their religious convictions may be strengthened by virtue of the useful contribution that they can make and the happier place they can have in society.

Unfortunately, the Shas leadership does not view things in the same way as Rabbi Amsellem. They were particularly unhappy about the manner in which he expressed his views, and the Council of Sages decided to expel him from his Knesset seat and from the party. By choosing him to be one of their members of Knesset, they expect him to toe the line. Failure to do so gives them the right to remove him from the list, and they did not hesitate to take action. Amsellem, however, took his rebellion against the party hierarchy to the next stage and has refused to relinquish his seat. Together with this, he issued his harshest criticism of the Council of Torah Sages yet. He expressed the view that each Knesset member should have the right to speak his or her mind, and that the upper echelon of spiritual leadership should be sticking to its role in the religious world and should not be meddling in politics. He accused the party's leadership of trying him in a "kangaroo court" where he had no opportunity to present his own views or defend his position.

Support for Rabbi Amsellem's position has not only come from the secular world. It seems that there is an increasingly large constituency of Shas supporters who agree with his view, but may be afraid to express it. Amsellem has now given these people a voice to express their opinions and frustrations. While many of them may not be minded to challenge the revered position of the Council of Torah Sages, they would be delighted to be given an opportunity to find a vocation that can give them a useful position in society that can bring greater value to themselves,their families and the State of Israel.

In dealing with Amsellem's revolt in this way, the Shas party hierarchy has shown its true colours. While working for the benefit of its own constituency and special interest group, the Shas party frequently works against the better interests of the State of Israel and her people. A country of little more than 6 million people cannot afford to carry passengers who do not serve to defend the national security of the country, nor contribute anything to her economy while all the time sucking on the state coffers. It is my hope that Rabbi Amsellem can succeed, not only in hanging onto his Knesset seat, but also in mobilising similar thinking people within his community to change the face of Shas and other ultra-orthodox parties alike.

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