Shas Party’s growing power linked to schools for poor

JERUSALEM — Two dozen first-graders with black kippot and curly sidelocks chant in unison the grace after meals following lunch at a Shas-run elementary school in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Shlomo Sharabi, Talmud Torah Habayit Hayehudi's principal, says his students' parents also spoke in one voice in Israel's elections last month. Their collective votes helped boost the fervently religious party's power base from 10 to 17 in Israel's 120-seat Knesset.

"We do not recruit children to get votes. We want them to become devout, observant Jews," says the 30-year-old Sharabi, noting that most of his students' parents have become haredi, or fervently religious, over the past few years.

"Once they become haredi, their families know by themselves to vote for Shas."

Since Shas was created in 1984 and won its first four Knesset seats, the party has gained acclaim for its shrewd political dealings.

Outside Israel, it is less known that Shas has built an extensive network of educational and social welfare institutions, filling a vacuum in services that the government never addressed. Today, this network is one of the biggest sources of Shas' political power.

Shas' social network is made up of six divisions offering an array of assistance and activities, including health services, Sephardi cultural enrichment, Torah seminars and even financial assistance for farmers.

But the movement's biggest and most important unit is Ma'ayan Hahinuch Hatorani, or Torah Education Spring. Shas says this educational network includes 100 day care centers, 750 kindergartens and 177 schools that provide services for more than 52,000 children of all ages at 360 locations throughout the country.

Shas' strategy is to start up a school and then receive Ministry of Education approval and funding afterward.

Many of these institutions are located in peripheral areas and working-class towns, and many of the children are poor. Each year, as school registration deadlines approach, older yeshiva students are dispatched by their rabbis on door-to-door recruitment campaigns.

Although 30 percent of Shas schoolchildren are strictly haredi, most are either traditional or even secular. This percentage mirrors that of the party's supporters. All of its leaders are fervently religious, but most of its voters are not.

Shas' school curricula include secular classes, but schools with a strictly haredi student body place more emphasis on Judaic studies. The common denominator in all schools is to keep a close watch on the children, even when they are not in school.

"We take care of the children day and night, in and out of their homes, and that is one of the secrets of our success," says Yitzhak Kakon, spokesman for the Shas education network. "We are in very close contact with parents. We check if the children have enough to eat, or if there is domestic violence. Sometimes we send in psychologists to help.

"We are making a big contribution to the state and saving people from crime and drugs," Kakon adds. "We can't understand why everyone is out to get us."

Naomi Hazan, a Knesset member from the far-left Meretz Party, says there is more to Shas than meets the eye. Its schools, she says, enjoy state funding but do not permit Ministry of Education inspectors to supervise educational content.

Sharabi, the Talmud Torah principal, rejected the criticism and pulled out an official Education Ministry license that states his school is supervised. The ministry says there is supervision — by Orthodox inspectors only.

Inspectors or not, what worries many secular Israelis is what the children are being taught behind closed doors.

This is a special concern, Hazan says, because the movement has been persistently challenging the legitimacy of the institutions of Israeli civil society.

"The most important and fundamental issue is clearly the issue of rule of law," Hazan says. "There is a clash of world views. Shas is unwilling to accept the supremacy of civil law and to accept that argument undermines the entire foundation of democratic government in this society."

Indeed, according to the Israeli daily Yediot Achranot, a Shas pirate radio station this week called on its listeners to take to the streets and launch a violent struggle against Shas' secular enemies.

"If we must slaughter, we will slaughter," said broadcaster Boaz Arnon, warning Supreme Court judges that God would kill them.

Sharabi says his students are not taught citizenship classes like in other schools. "But they are taught that Jewish law gives legitimacy to a government to make order in society — so long as there is no conflict with the halachah," or Jewish law, he says. "When there is a conflict with secular law — such as our objection to allowing Reform conversions in Israel — our students know that the halachah will always prevail."

What also bothers Hazan is that Shas institutions use funding methods that allow it to enjoy support from several ministries and offer services at far lower costs than elsewhere. Shas claims its schools are provided proportionately less funding than secular and modern Orthodox state schools.

"Shas is an organization that breeds on poverty and perpetuates that poverty in order to increase their political power," Hazan says. "Fundamentalist organizations such as Hamas do exactly the same thing — they build educational institutions and provide cradle to grave services that people cannot afford."

Experts say the proliferation of Shas' education and welfare network is the result of government failure.

"The enormous growth of Shas marks the failure of the 'melting pot' concept of Israeli society," says Moshe Lissak, a professor emeritus of sociology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The problems stem from the early years of the state, and the widespread perception among Sephardim that they were treated as second-class citizens by the Labor Party's Ashkenazi-dominated elite.

Lissak points out that although Likud was in power for most of the past 22 years, and the party was considered more sympathetic toward the Sephardim, it failed to make the right investments to bridge the socioeconomic gaps.

"Since 1977, when Likud came to power, the gaps between Ashkenazim and Sephardim have grown wider," says Lissak.

This was an invitation for an organization like Shas to fill the vacuum. "It was particularly successful," explains Lissak, because of the combination of a respected spiritual leader like Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and an extraordinarily talented political leader like Aryeh Deri, who both disseminated a fundamentalist message of a Sephardi cultural renaissance.

Tapping into ethnic frustration, the needs of the poor and a thirst for Judaism was a strategy that has allowed Shas to flourish.

"For us, the party is a means toward fulfilling a bigger agenda. For other groups, the party is the goal," says Kakon, the Shas education spokesman. "This is why Shas cannot be crushed."