Wow. A non-sensational story on Charedim

The Independent offers a meaty feature on the Shas party

Mostly when the strictly Orthodox community makes it into the mainstream British press, it is for the exotic value. In the past, there has been an unhealthy interest in the small Neturei Karta sect because of its habit of inserting itself into appalling causes like Iranian Holocaust-denial and pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Trafalgar Square on Shabbat.

More recently, The Guardian ran a mysterious double-page colour photograph of clearly inebriated Chassidim celebrating Purim in Mea Shearim. Another story receiving great coverage was the unfortunate death of Benzion Dunner, described in the headlines as “God’s Postman”, because of the cash he delivered to the deserving poor.

It is much more unusual to read serious political coverage of the Charedi community. But just such a report by Donald Macintyre appeared in The Independent at the end of March. Macintyre’s longer reports in the Indy invariably go places where other British correspondents in the region, more interested in bang-bang and diplomacy, rarely tread.

The Indy reporter starts his exploration of the power of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s Shas party in a yeshivah in the immigrant town of Beit Shemesh. What sets this yeshivah apart is that the students are largely Sephardic and are drop-outs from other educational facilities. It is in essence a Shas-backed social project designed to keep youngsters with difficult backgrounds, including Ethiopian families, off the streets and give them the chance to embrace Judaism. As Macintyre observes, it is also a lesson in power politics which could have a critical impact on the peace process being pursued by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Macintyre notes that Israel’s pure form of proportional representation allows smaller parties like Shas “to punch above their weight”. He writes that the 11 Shas members in the Knesset are part of the coalition which has kept Olmert in power far longer than anyone expected and acts as a brake on Olmert’s vision of a two-state solution.

He notes that Shas already has threatened to remove itself from the coalition should the future of Jerusalem be discussed. It also claims to be responsible for the construction of 300 new homes in the West Bank settlement of Givat Ze’ev. This has not only angered Palestinians, he observes, but even drew a sharp rebuke from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The reporter notes that, since the 1990s, Shas has hardened its line on the peace process. In the 1990s, the party’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Yosef, ruled that the saving of life mattered more than territory. The shift in position has led the Ha’aretz commentator Nehemia Strasler to suggest that Shas has now surpassed Likud on the right in its hardline attitudes.

As the Indy points out, it is not just on global politics that Shas exercises influence. It also has succeeded in blocking efforts to lengthen daylight-savings time so as to make Yom Kippur more bearable, and it is working on making life a little bit less comfortable for Israel’s gays. But what really seems to anger Israel’s leftist media is the way in which Olmert kowtows to Shas’s political influence. He seems to prefer doing business with people with velvet kippot and white shirts than the more liberal Meretz party.

The political deals with the religious right which drive Israeli governments, and so often compromise their bargaining position in the peace talks, are often neglected in press coverage. The Independent’s feature on Shas commendably joins the dots and makes it clear that the black hats are not just a fascinating cultural phenomenon.

    Last updated: 11:14am, June 4 2008