TEL AVIV — American election campaign slogans evidently are contagious, especially President-elect Barack Obama’s resonating “Yes We Can!”
Its Hebrew translation is plastered on the sides of buses that ply the streets of this bustling city vowing, “Ken Anahnu Ye’cholim.” A local television show’s two new anchors are using it as a promo.
Surprisingly, the political party that touts it is the ultra-Orthodox “Shas,” an acronym, which, like its Arabic-language counterparts such as Fatah and Hamas does not abbreviate the words of which it is composed in precise letter-by-letter order.
The official name is “Miflget S’faradim Shomrei Torah,” meaning “The Party of S’fardic Jews Who Abide by the Torah.” Shas reverses the two key words, “S’faradim” and “Shomrei” and takes the first Hebrew letter of each (making it Shas instead of “Sash”). In so doing, it avers to the six sections or “orders” (“S’darim”) of the Mishnah — and creates a convenient title for a religious party.
Shas also is the epitome of ethnic sectorialism, a characteristic that runs counter to mainstream Israeli social principles and political norms. In keeping with Zionist idealism, the Jewish state’s founding fathers advocated integration of the immigrants (known in Hebrew as “olim” — those who ascend to the Holy Land) rather than perpetuation of their cultural or denominational differences.
In fact, Judaism’s liturgy is comprised of two concurrent, but occasionally divergent, textual and ritual versions. On that basis, it splits from the multidenominational, but Ashkenazic-dominated National Religious Party (which dissolved itself earlier this month) to win 17 Knesset seats in its first electoral bid a decade ago and dropped to 12 Knesset seats in the last election two years ago.
President-elect Obama might be interested to know that Shas even added a mite of sanctity to his catchy campaign slogan. The advertisements that brandish it all over Tel Aviv include the religiously mandatory initials, “Beth” and “Hey” which stand for “Baruch Ha’shem,” meaning “Blessed be God.”
But when it comes to politics, the constraints and restraints of Jewish Orthodoxy fall by the wayside.
The venerable spiritual leader of Shas, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, came out with a stinging and offensive reprimand of Israel’s secular educators. He called the not-necessarily-religious academic personnel who teach history — instead of pounding away with Torah scholarship (to paraphrase the Hebrew idiom to that effect) — a herd of donkeys or asses, “hamorim” in Hebrew.
This not only got the secular majority’s goat, but also generated a menacing political rejoinder from the incumbent Kadima party’s candidate for the premiership, Zippy Livni. She warned that a Shas politician would take over the ministry of education if the right-wing Likud party led by ex-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wins the most votes on Feb. 10, 2009.
Livni sacrificed her built-in opportunity to head an interim coalition government last month by refusing to promise Shas funding for large families, a demand she rejected as extortion.
“I will not sell Israel to Shas,” she proclaimed, prompting Shas leaders to retort with undisguised contempt that “Livni will sell Israel to the Arabs.”
Neither side explained how these alleged sales might be consummated insofar as the price that would be paid by the buyers was not stipulated.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu, who just tripled his party’s lead in its race with Kadima, kept adding prestigious names to his electoral slate. The most impressive of these is Benny Begin, son of the late Prime Minister Menahem Begin; and Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who is named after his grandfather, Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, founder of the Zionist-Revisionist movement, the Likud party’s ideological antecedent.
Netanyahu also co-opted Reserve Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, an outspoken ex-military chief of staff who opposed the unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip three years ago; Dan Meridor, a former justice minister; and Reserve Maj. Gen. Moshe Peled, a highly-respected combat commander. Bibi’s latest acquisition: Tal Brody, the American basketball star who moved to Israel after serving in the U.S. Army and went on to transform Israeli basketball into a national sport.
The bottom line is that these moves may bring about “change” in the same sense, but not in the same political direction (here it may be to the right rather than to the left) that was advocated by President-elect Obama while he ran in the Democratic party primary against Sen. Hillary Clinton and in the national election when he defeated Sen. John McCain.
It simply will mean that different hands will hold the reins of political power, but most if not all of them will be all-too-familiar to the electorate.
(Jay Bushinsky, an Israel-based political columnist, can be reached at