Mizrahi Jewish rights
|International affiliation||World Zionist Organization|
|Politics of Israel
Shas (Hebrew: ש״ס, an acronym for Shomrei Sfarad, lit. Sfarad's guards (of the Torah)) is an ultra-orthodox religious political party in Israel. Founded in 1984 under the leadership of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a former Israeli Sephardi chief rabbi, who remained its spiritual leader until his death in October 2013, it primarily represents the interests of Haredi Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews.
Originally a small ethnic political group, Shas is currently Israel's fifth largest party in the Knesset. Since 1984, it had almost always formed a part of the governing coalition, whether the ruling party was Labor or Likud. As of 2013, Shas members currently sit with Labor in the opposition due to disagreements with other right-wing parties in Netanyahu's coalition about conscription of the ultra-Orthodox into national service.
Shas was founded in 1984 prior to the elections to the eleventh Knesset in the same year, in protest over the small representation of Sephardim in the largely Ashkenazi Agudat Yisrael, through the merger of regional lists established in 1983. It was originally known as The Worldwide Sephardic Association of Torah Guardians (Hebrew: התאחדות הספרדים העולמית שומרי תורה, Hitahdut HaSfaradim HaOlamit Shomrei Torah). The party was formed under the leadership of former Israeli chief Sephardi rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who established a four-member (including himself) Council of Torah Sages  and remained the party's spiritual leader until his death. In founding the party, Yosef received strategic help and guidance from Rabbi Elazar Shach, the leader of Israel's non-Hasidic Haredi Ashkenazi Jews. Yosef founded the party in 1984 on the platform of a return to religion and as a counter to an establishment dominated by Ashkenazi Jews of European extraction.
The stated purpose of the party is to "return the crown to the former glory", and to repair what it sees as the "continued economic and social discrimination against the Sephardic population of Israel". Focusing on the needs of Sephardic Orthodox Israelis, Shas established its own government-funded education system called MaAyan HaHinuch HaTorani, which became popular in poor Sephardic towns, increasing the party's popular support. Shas advocates a state run according to Halakha, the Jewish religious law, and actively engages in the Baal teshuva movement, encouraging non-Orthodox Israelis of Sephardic and Mizrahi-Jewish heritage to adopt a Haredi Jewish lifestyle.
Shas is officially a Haredi social party, but it has participated in left-wing governments and is often willing to compromise on both religious and economic issues.
At first, Shas followed a moderate policy on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, after Yosef had declared that lives were more important than territories, but has since moved to the right, and opposes any freeze in Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank. In addition, it is skeptical towards the US Obama Administration's intentions regarding the Peace Process and has begun to support a consolidation of Israeli Settlement interests, especially regarding yeshivas and Jewish Holy Sites in the West Bank. It further believes in a 'United Jerusalem' and supports the Greater Jerusalem plan. In 2010, Shas joined the World Zionist Organisation, having made significant changes to their Charter.
Shas demands and endorses a compensation package for those Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews that were forced to leave their host countries and their property behind, making it a condition for its being willing to accept any peace deal with the PLO and bilateral peace agreements with Arab Countries.
Shas opposes any form of public expression of homosexuality, including Gay Pride parades, especially in Jerusalem. Shas MK Nissim Ze'ev accused the homosexual community of "carrying out the self-destruction of Israeli society and the Jewish people", calling homosexuals "a plague as toxic as bird flu". However, it officially condemns any form of violence against gays and lesbians.
Elections and influence
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The majority of Shas voters are themselves not ultra-orthodox. Many of its voters are Modern Orthodox and 'traditional' Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, due to its alignment with the promotion of an 'authentic Middle Eastern' Israeli culture, which fits well with traditional Zionist beliefs of a revival of authentic, non-Europeanized Jewish culture. However, they are still representing, by principle and not practice, their Sephardi and Mizrahi Haredi Jewish Sectors in the Knesset. Shas has at times been able to exert disproportionate influence by gaining control of the balance of power in the Knesset within the context of the traditionally narrow margin between Israel's large parties. Like its labour zionist counterparts (i.e. Labour and Meretz) that gain votes from kibbutz, Shas gains votes and supports from moshavim that are inhabited by Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, either orthodox or non-orthodox. Also, since it became the member of World Zionist Organization, it gains votes from settlers in the West Bank.
In the elections to the eleventh Knesset in 1984, Shas won four seats. Following Aryeh Deri's conviction on corruption charges in 1999, Shas gained 17 seats in the 1999 elections, its strongest showing since its formation. Although 26 seats were projected for the following election had they run in 2001, instead Shas was reduced to 11 seats in the 2003 election because the two-ballot system was amended.
In the 2006 elections it gained one more seat after running what the BBC called "an aggressive campaign that targeted the neo-conservative economic policies of the previous government", and joined Ehud Olmert's coalition government, alongside Kadima, Labor, Gil and between October 2006 and January 2008, Yisrael Beiteinu. In the government, Shas party leader Yishai was Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor, and Deputy Prime Minister whilst Ariel Atias was Minister of Communications, and Meshulam Nahari and Yitzhak Cohen were Ministers without Portfolio.
Following the 2009 elections in which Shas won eleven seats, it joined Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government and held four cabinet posts. Eli Yishai, who led the party at that time, was one of four Deputy Prime Ministers, and Minister of Internal Affairs.
On 4 December 2011, Shas launched its United States affiliate, American Friends of Shas, based in Brooklyn.
Shas won 11 seats in the 2013 elections, but chose to form part of the Labor opposition to Netanyahu's new government. Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party and Naftali Bennett of Habayit Hayehudi, who had won more seats and joined the coalition, both favored conscription of the previously exempt Haredi men into Israel's national service and a reduction in state financial support for Haredi families, policies which Shas opposes.
In December 2014 Eli Yishai left the Shas party, which he had led for more than a decade. He said he would lead a new party in the election scheduled for March 2015. His departure from Shas and Aryeh Deri did not come as a surprise. 
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Since 1999, several of Shas's MKs, including Aryeh Deri, Rafael Pinhasi, Yair Levy, Ofer Hugi, and Yair Peretz have been convicted of offences including fraud and forgery. In addition, elected MK Shlomo Benizri was convicted of bribery, conspiring to commit a crime and obstruction of justice on 1 April 2008. Benizri subsequently resigned and Mazor Bahaina, number thirteen on the Shas list, replaced him.
The party was mired in scandal after the indictment and subsequent conviction and imprisonment of its former party leader, Aryeh Deri, on corruption charges in 1999. While Yosef distanced the party from Deri and installed Yishai as the new party head, many Shas voters saw Deri as the victim of a discriminatory political witch-hunt and continue to support him.
In 2010, as United States President Obama called for talks between Netanyahu and Abbas, Ovadia Yosef called Palestinians "evil, bitter enemies of Israel" and said "Abu Mazen and all these evil people should perish from this world. God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians." Saeb Erekat of the PLO said Yosef's remarks were tantamount to a call for "genocide against Palestinians." Yosef later apologized for his statements, and wrote to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, "I support your efforts and praise all the leaders and the peoples – Egyptians, Jordanians and Palestinians – who are partners and wish the success of this important process of achieving peace in our region, and preventing bloodshed. May God grant you longevity and may you succeed in your efforts for peace and may there be peace in our region." Previously Yosef had called Arabs "vipers," and called for Israel to "annihilate" them. "It is forbidden to be merciful to them. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable." A spokesman later argued that his comments were only aimed at murderers and terrorists, and not the entire Arab world. 
Women activists are protesting the fact that Shas, along with other ultra-Orthodox parties, refuses to run female candidates for office. They have created a campaign called 'No Female Candidate, No Female Vote' . The women made the argument that since they are working and contributing to support Israel and their families, they should also be represented in the Knesset. They will refuse to vote for a party that does not include women candidates on its slate. These Haredi women sent an open letter to the Knesset representatives of the ultra-Orthodox parties and circulated it on social media as well. Rabbi Mordechai Blau, a senior party member, quickly issued threatening statements. Women participating in the movement or bucking the party leadership would find their children "banned from Haredi schools" and their employers "boycotted by the community," he said.
Shortly after women made their demands for representation on the Shas candidate roster, Shas announced that it was creating a women's council within the movement. The "No votes without representation" campaign replied that it would "welcome the decision made by the chairman of Shas and Council of Torah Sages to create a women's council within the movement – a blessed and important step that was made thanks to the actions of the campaign." At the same time, the group added, "We will move forward and call on the haredi factions to also enable women to serve as MKs in the Knesset." Eli Yishai, a former Shas leader said on Israel Radio. "There is nothing in Jewish law that says you can't have a woman as a Knesset member. But our rabbis decide what they decide on every subject and the same goes for this."
Subsequently, Orthodox women created their own party, U'Bizchutan. In response, Isaac Bezalel, the Haredi Shas Party spokesman, said, "The Haredi public is not yet open to women serving in the Knesset."
Current Knesset members
Eleven Shas candidates were elected to the 19th Knesset:
- Eli Yishai
- Aryeh Deri
- Ariel Atias
- Yitzhak Cohen
- Meshulam Nahari
- Amnon Cohen
- Ya'akov Margi
- David Azulai
- Yitzhak Vaknin
- Nissim Ze'ev
- Avraham Michaeli
- Dani Fic (2009) The Political Right in Israel: Different Faces of Jewish Populism Routledge, p79
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- Israel's ultra-Orthodox Haredi women form political party USA Today, 28 Feb 2015