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Israel Political Parties: Shas

Shas (Hebrew acronym for "Shomrei Sfarad," literally meaning "Sephardi Guards") is an ultra-orthodox political party in Israel founded by Rav Ovadiah Yosef in 1984.

With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, and the riots and persecutions that resulted against the Jews of Arab countries, massive numbers of Middle-Eastern Jews were brought to Israel. The Jews from these Sephardic Jewish communities did not experience movements for religious reform like the ones that arose in Western Europe or America and the main threat to their religious tradition came from the secular influences that they encountered under colonial rule, especially under French rule in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.

The Israeli leadership at the time, consisting largely of secular Ashkenazic Jews, often viewed the religious lifestyles of their "oriental" cousins as another manifestation of the cultural primitiveness that would have to be shed as part of their integration into a modern Western society. During these first few decades of Israeli statehood, these "oriental" Jews did not establish their own political or religious movements or institutions, and most were absorbed into the established Ashkenazic bodies. They were usually educated in the State Religious School System and the main religious political movements, the Aguddat Israel and the Mizrachi (which later evolved into the National Religious Party), had few Sephardim among their leadership.

By the mid-1970's the ethnic divisions between Ashkenazic and Sepharadic Israelis became a major social issue. In the religious sphere this led to the creation of Sephardic parallels to the mainstream religious parties. In protest of the small representation of Sephardic Jews in the religious political parties, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Rav Ovadiah Yosef founded Shas in 1984 with its own Council of Torah Sages. In the 1984 elections Shas won four seats in the Knesset amd in the 1999 election, Shas won an unexpected 17seats and, for the first time, posed a threat to the two leading parties.

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 El ha-Ma'ayan, which became popular in poor Sephardic towns, increasing the party's popular support. Shas advocates a state run according to Halakha, 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.

Following the 2009 elections, in which Shas won 11 seats, the party joined the governing coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and was awarded four cabinet posts. Eli Yishai, the leader of the party, became a Deputy Prime Minister as well as Minister of Internal Affairs.

In the January 2013 elections, Shas again won 11 seats while still under the leadership of Yishai.

The Ultra-Orthodox Shas party was rocked with controversy leading up to the 2015 elections. The party's head, Aryeh Deri, submitted his resignation in December 2014, following the release of audio recordings featuring the party's founder and spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef berating him.  Supporters urged him to reconsider, and one month later Deri announced that he was rescinding his resignation.  Deri made headlines once more when he cancelled his plans to attend the Israel Democracy Conference, being held on February 17, stating that the event had become divisive.  Likud and HaBayat HaYeudi party leaders had cancelled their attendance at the Conference during the week prior, though in a less public fashion. 

The Shas party barely made it into the 20th Knesset, placing seventh and receiving enough votes for seven seats in the 20th Knesset.

Sources: Prof. Eliezer Siegel; Wikipedia; Shas Official Website (Hebrew); Haaretz (February 5, 2015)