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Can a feminist Mizrahi woman find her political home in Shas?

Although it is run by ultra-Orthodox men and its path for social mobility is anchored in religion, Shas remains the only truly socially minded political party and is certainly the only Mizrahi party. One voter’s search for answers.

By Efrat Shani-Shitrit

Shas MK Aryeh Deri (Photo by Activstills.org)

Shas MK Aryeh Deri (Photo by Activstills.org)

A few weeks ago, flyers targeting the women of north Tel Aviv were posted around the suburban streets of one of its better-known neighborhoods, Ramat Aviv: “If you live in Ramat Aviv, don’t vote for us. If you work for someone who lives in Ramat Aviv: Only Shas.” Aryeh Deri, who until the most recent Knesset had not led the ultra-Orthodox party for 13 years, is back with a new, clear social message: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef [Shas’ spiritual figurehead, who died in 2013] called for taking care of the invisible people who have been left behind by the state, struggling to close societal gaps, fighting for hungry children, better education in country’s periphery, and the creation of more jobs. Should Ovadia’s message come into fruition, it would benefit both disempowered women and men.

Shas offers a Mizrahi-based agenda, a Mizrahi leader and Mizrahi members of Knesset — the diametrical opposite of other parties. There are many who critique the party for its non-social direction, and the fact that its former leader, Eli Yishai, took the party to the political far-right. But it is far more acceptable to harshly (and wrongly) criticize Shas for perpetuating social gaps and its lack of any real contribution to the periphery. There are those who also criticize Shas for being corrupt, though we must remember that this country’s elites act in ways that are far more detrimental than Aryeh Deri, who spent three years in prison for accepting bribes. The rise of the Mizrahim, and their inability to fit into any of the political templates that were available to Mizrahim before the establishment of Shas, brought on the ire of seculars, Religious-Zionists and the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox alike. It seems that Israel is incapable of having a Mizrahi political party with a clear Mizrahi agenda.

Read also: Shas’ challenge to both Right and Left

Public discourse in this country is blind to the fact that Shas’ proposed path for “strengthening” (a process of becoming more religious) provided one of the only avenues to improve their lives. Many Mizrahim, whose disempowered place in society allowed them very few ways to make a living, not to mention a death of cultural capital and in many cases a life of crime, were able to acquire religious education (through torah studies) and find a meaningful path toward a respectable life — through faith. This did not provide a perfect solution to the oppression of Mizrahim, yet it did provide more economic opportunities for people when other parties didn’t do a thing for them.

Journalist Avishai Ben-Haim recently wrote that he heard a Mizrahi mother speak on a religious radio station about the fact that she has five children: “Five are drug addicts, and two are in Shas.” Her words reflect a reality that is so far removed from those who denounce Shas, that I must wonder what exactly they or the political parties they vote for do for her sake.

We, as Mizrahim, cannot make do with a struggle for the middle class; most of us came from either the geographical or social periphery — we have an obligation to take care of the lower classes, which are only growing due to anti-welfare government policies. Today, the only party whose platform focuses on social activism for the weakest portions of Israeli society is Shas. The main question I will have to answer before making my way to the voting booth is whether I am willing to put my faith in a party that on the one hand does not fully represent me, yet on the other hand fights the good fight on the most burning issues?

Let’s look at Shas’ campaign promises:

– Land reform: Municipal taxes for “development towns,” enhancing public housing by allocating a certain percentage of apartments in every new apartment building.
– Raising the minimum wage.
– Lowering the VAT (value added tax, similar to sales tax) on 35 basic consumer products.
– More money taken from direct taxes (raising income tax) than from indirect taxes (lowering VAT).

As a Mizrahi feminist, I certainly will not be able to wholeheartedly support a party that has no female representation in the Knesset. On the other hand, I refuse to analyze the party and its internal processes through the prism of white feminism. It is very important that healthy developments take place within the public itself when it is ready. Even if I know that women must be able to serve as members of Knesset, this decision cannot come from the outside without any real acceptance from the side of the ultra-Orthodox public. Therefore, I am pinning my hopes on the newly-established women’s advisory council, and that it will have a wide impact.

Should Shas become a bigger, more open party in the upcoming elections, it is certainly possible that it will be another step toward a women’s revolution led by Adina Bar Shalom (Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s daughter). There is also a wonderful, brave group of ultra-Orthodox women who are demanding female representation in the Knesset. I hope that the women’s revolution will allow them a greater presence among ultra-Orthodox women in general, so that they demand change from below. That way, Sephardic rabbis will have no choice but to take them seriously, and perhaps even adopt the original, more moderate Sephardic approach.

Along with others who represent the majority of the Jewish public in Israel and who lack a political home, perhaps it is time to support a social, Mizrahi agenda — one that does not stem from a fear of ultra-orthodoxy, but rather respects and works alongside it for a shared future? Perhaps it is time that we can also influence the party, so that it can be an egalitarian, political home for us in the next elections?

This article first appeared in Hebrew on Haokets.

WATCH: Shas’ challenge to both Right and Left
Why Mizrahim don’t vote for the Left
Don’t call her the ‘Russian candidate’: Meet Ksenia Svetlova

Special Coverage: 2015 Elections

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    1. Kolumn4

      You people publish the craziest sh?t ever here. Apparently seeking female representation and to advance rather than retard the advancement of women is now referred to as “white feminism”. This entire line of thinking is bat-sh?t insane. Lets take a theocratic party run by a rabbinical council which mostly cares about yeshiva budgets (for men) and will certainly compromise every single other campaign promise and which has only male representatives and try to turn it into an “egalitarian” party on the basis of what, no seriously, what? This author is the kind of feminist that would support forcing women to wear burkas and to not work as long as the people doing so were a darker shade of white. Just holy sh?t. Seriously. WTF is wrong with these people?

      Next article – a Mizrahi feminist that supports the Islamic State and rejects criticism of their treatment of women as “privileged white feminism”.

      Reply to Comment
      • Brian

        This is a blunt hatchet job, willfully or unwillfully uncomprehending. There is no way to square the author’s statement that “As a Mizrahi feminist, I certainly will not be able to wholeheartedly support a party…the public itself when it is ready” with forcing burkas on women and supporting Islamic State. Is “Islamic State” an all-purpose weapon you whip out against all and sundry who are not hard core nationalists?

        Reply to Comment
        • C.C. DeVille

          That’s because you don’t understand the article or the comment.

          You are a nincompoop

          Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn4

          Which part of her supporting a fundamentalist religious party run and represented entirely by men and which seeks to relegate women to secondary positions at best was hard for you to grasp?

          Reply to Comment
          • Brian

            Which part about public discourse being blind to the paths these people really have open to them to improve their lives, the struggles of the lower classes, and how the other parties fail these people, fail to do a thing for them was hard for you to grasp? Because it certainly is hard hard for you to grasp it. See my longer answer below.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn4

            Which part of Shas never having done anything to improve their lives while teaching their adherents to relegate women to secondary positions is hard for you and Mizrahi feminists to grasp? Shas cares about two things – medieval values and more money for its yeshivas. Which is precisely what this silly woman supports when she supports Shas in the name of ‘mizrahi feminism’.

            Reply to Comment
          • Brian

            Look, when I read Efrat Shani-Shitrit’s words carefully I think she understands ALL these parts. With some realism, acceptance of imperfection and the long view, and the authority of an insider. No one is singing the praises of the rabbinical councils here. It’s about bringing people along from where they really are and empathizing with them, and from the inside, rather than disdaining them from afar. She still realizes it’s a tough choice. Nothing’s perfect. But she is to be congratulated for getting at something important.

            Reply to Comment
    2. William Burns

      It’s not going to be an egalitarian party if its built on a foundation of Jewish privilege, obviously.

      Reply to Comment
    3. BigCat

      “Can a feminist Mizrahi woman find her political home in Shas?”

      A feminist Mizrahi woman will ALWAYS find her home in The Jewish Home party, the Likud party and sometimes the Labor party. The Jewish Home party will receive you with open arms.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Tomer

      What does the author mean by “Mizrachi”?

      Do Jews who originally lived in Crete to be considered Mizrachi?
      What about those from Kazakstan?
      What about Ethiopians?
      Or those who lived in Malta?

      Leaving these geographical questions aside, some 33% of Israelis now consider themselves of “mixed parentage”. The % is going up each year. The author seems to be trapped in some 1982 timewarp.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Mikesailor

      Does it make a tinker’s damn worth of difference which Zionist party she voted for? I guess Rabbi Ovadia’s own pronouncements that all non-Jews are merely donkeys born to serve the “master race” doesn’t give her any qualms at all. More shuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic. And you wonder why the party in power doesn’t discuss social or economic policy in this sill election? Because no Zionist Jew, including this “feminist”, really cares about anything except the Zionist brand name and how they can maintain their privilege. The non-Jews would be natural allies for the Mizrahim yet they care too much about the corrupt opportunities to steal and brutalize those lower on the Israeli totem pole with impunity. As long as the “tribe” stays together and doesn’t really try to change the ethos of the society, what does it matter?

      Reply to Comment
      • C.C. DeVille

        Mike, shut your goddam mouth already. All you do is speak on topics you know nothing about. Find a new hobby already, your pontificating about Jews is old and tiresome.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Brian

      The author is to be congratulated at getting at something subtle and very, very important. This is a very complex issue of moral foundations that all societies struggle with. The failure of the Ashkenazi-dominated Left to deal with the things Shas IS dealing with in its own peculiar way, the Left’s surrender of the Mizrahi constituency to the Right, is something like the failure of the US Democratic Party’s surrender of poor and working class whites to the Republicans—the “Nancy Pelosi” syndrome to put it in the Right’s language. I’m not saying the comparison is exact but underneath all the many differences there are some commonalities. To my mind a scientist and scholar who has dealt with this in a compelling and original way is Jonathan Haidt.

      Here’s a fun and accessible entry into his thinking:

      “What Makes People Vote Republican?”


      Haidt’s Five Moral Pillars

      1. Care (versus harm)
      2. Fairness/reciprocity (versus cheating)
      3. Ingroup Loyalty (versus betrayal)
      4. Authority/respect (versus subversion)
      5. Purity/Sanctity (versus degradation)

      (There’s a sixth one he’s formulated in collaboration with others: Liberty versus oppression.)

      Haidt has measured these traits, these building blocks of morality, in populations–this is science. I think it gets at the way humans really evolved and are in nature, it goes all the way down.

      As seen in this simple figure:


      Political/social liberals value Care and Fairness/reciprocity much more than the other three moral foundations whereas conservative tend to endorse all five more or less equally. Liberals value universal rights and the UN, conservatives as we’ve seen here tend to be much less concerned about the latest United Nation declaration.

      Haidt sees this as the crux of the disagreement between liberals and conservatives.

      Pillars 3, 4 and 5 are Durkheimian, connect with all the things that Durkheim, who famously studied suicide, identified as important to people deep down, across all societies, and in defending against ennui and social collapse and suicide.

      Pillars 1 and 2 are Millian, the things emphasized by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty and the Three Essays on Religion, etc.

      Compare “Why Mizrahim don’t vote for the Left”

      with “What Makes People Vote Republican?” (link above)

      I think Haidt is an exemplary “transmodern” thinker, uniting the best of modernism and the best of anti-modern fundamentalist themes and post-modern themes in a post-modern synthesis that explains moral philosophy in psychological terms with a scientific foundation based on real data in human populations. And that captures real people in their genuine predicaments, and what they really care about.

      What Efrat Shani-Shitrit is struggling with here is exactly this set of conflicts and this attempt at bridging and synthesis, and bringing people along while understanding where they really are. She is to be congratulated and not derided as “crazy.” When the Ashkenazi Left (and Nancy Pelosi) better absorb some of the wisdom of Haidt’s five pillars analysis they will do much better at winning elections decisively.

      That mother with the five children who are drug addicts and the two who are in Shas: there is a LOT contained in Shani-Shitrit’s words: “Her words reflect a reality that is so far removed from those who denounce Shas, that I must wonder what exactly they or the political parties they vote for do for her sake.”

      View the conflicts within Israel, within Israel/Palestine and the occupation, and between them and the world, and all the parties involved, in terms of these five or six pillars and it will all make a different kind of sense to you. This is NOT to say there is a simple formula here. Far from it. It’s extremely complex. But it allows you to empathize with the struggles of all the parties even as you take sides, and realize the failures of the politicians in sharper relief.
      It allows you to see more clearly the manipulative appeal of Naftali Bennet, for example, how he manipulates people in what I consider a fascist direction. He is all about the Pillars 3-5 and not so much about Pillars 1-2. Meretz on the other hand, is all about Pillars 1-2 and not so much about Pillars 3-5. Livni and Hertzog and Lapid et al. are various incoherent, shifting, hypocritical, opportunistic mixes and matches and fakeries of the five pillars, in my view. (And Bibi is in a class of his own since, as recent events demonstrate, his actions are more about him and him alone than about his country or other human beings, and inject a startling element of personal pathology into the political sphere that mucks up everything. In my opinion of course.)

      Reply to Comment
      • C.C. DeVille

        Brian, for the love of God, please stop your annoying habit of pasting all sort of things here. Start your own blog if you must. I am telling you in advance that I am not going to read your response.

        Reply to Comment
        • Schwartz

          Yep, you got that “twang.”

          Reply to Comment
    7. Mikesailor

      Sorry C.C.: At least I’m honest and to that you can’t reply. Where am I wrong? I’m just quoting the late great spiritual head of Shas. Isn’t that accurate? Or is it that I ruin the little circle jerk you have going with the other racists? By the way, at least I know the difference between Jews and Zionists. Do you?

      Reply to Comment
      • C.C. DeVille

        mike, nobody will ever accuse you being honest. A redneck conspiracy theorist, yes. A bigot and anti-Semite, yes. A truth teller, never

        Reply to Comment
      • GilGamesh

        Says the guy who demanded that Jewish posters have handles that identified them as such. too funny. face it Mike you’ve been outed to many times on this board for your own racism to act all hot and bothered about anyone else’s.

        Reply to Comment
    8. Mikeasilor

      I never said that Jewish posters should have handles identifying themselves as Jews. I just thought it funny, Gil, that your handle is a gay Babylonian epic hero. Apparently you didn’t know it either. And apparently still have not read the poem. Go climb back under you rock, Gil.

      Reply to Comment
      • GilGamesh

        “Apparently you didn’t know it either.” And your evidence for this is? Like most of your claims fabricated.

        A racist, a liar, and a homophobe is no way to go through life Mike.

        oh and PS the origins of the Gilgamesh are Sumerian. Abraham was from Sumeria. You know who Abraham is right?

        Reply to Comment
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