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Shas (Sephardic Torah Guardians)

Shas is a Sephardic-Haredi party, whose original name was "Sephardi Keepers of the Torah". Shas was established toward the elections for the Eleventh Knesset in 1984, as a protest against the peripheral representation of Sephardim within the Agudat Yisrael list. The stated purpose of the party, whose spiritual leader is Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and whose political leader until the Fourteenth Knesset was Arie Der'I, is to "return the crown to the former glory", and to repair the alleged continued economic and social discrimination against the Sephardic population of Israel. Despite its Rightist political position, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef declared that human life is more important than territories. Shas has been represented in the Knesset by that name from the Eleventh Knesset through the Sixteenth Knessets.

During the prestate period, Agudat Israel, founded in 1912, opposed both the ideology of Zionism and its political expression, the World Zionist Organization. It rejected any cooperation with non-Orthodox Jewish groups and considered Zionism profane in that it forced the hand of the Almighty in bringing about the redemption of the Jewish people. A theocratic and clericalist party, Agudat Israel exhibited intense factionalism and religious extremism. From 1955 to 1961 Agudat Israel formed a part of the Torah Religious Front. Traditionally, the party's Knesset delegation has consisted only of Ashkenazi factions, although ultra-Orthodox Orientals also provided it considerable electoral support.

In preparation for the 1984 Knesset elections, grievances over a lack of representation in party institutions caused Orientals to defect and establish Shas. As a result, Agudat Israel's Knesset representation declined from four to two seats. In the 1988 Knesset elections, as part of an ultra-Orthodox electoral upswing, the Shas Knesset delegation increased from two to six seats.

The Council of Torah Sages, a panel of rabbis to which both religious and secular decisions had to be referred, contained representatives of each faction in Agudat Israel. The main factions represented two Hasidic (ultra-Orthodox) courts: the court of the Rabbi of Gur, which dominated the party and the Council of Torah Sages; and the court of Rabbi Eliezer Shakh. Agudat Israel engaged in ultra-Orthodox educational and social welfare activities, as well as in immigrant absorption. It usually took the lead in initiating legislation on religious issues. The party obtained exemptions from military service for its adherents.

Shas resulted in 1984 from allegations of Agudat Israel's inadequate representation of ultra-Orthodox Sephardim in the Council of Torah Sages, the party organization, and educational and social welfare institutions. The leader of Shas was Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, who served as minister of interior in the National Unity Government until his protest resignation in 1987. As a theocratic party, Shas depended heavily for policy direction on its patrons, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yoseph, and Rabbi Eliezer Shakh, former Ashkenazi head of the Agudat Israel-dominated Council of Torah Sages. Rabbi Shakh sanctioned the formation of Shas and its division into separate Sephardi and Ashkenazi factions. In the negotiations to form the National Unity Government in 1984, Shas outmaneuvered the NRP and gained the Ministry of Interior portfolio. As minister of interior, Rabbi Peretz became a source of controversy as a result of his promoting religious fundamentalism in general and the narrow partisan interests of Shas in particular.

Unlike Agudat Israel, Shas saw no contradiction between its religious beliefs and Zionism. It was far more anti-Arab than Agudat Israel and sought increased representation for its adherents in all government bodies, in Zionist institutions, and in the Jewish Agency. Despite its ethnic homogeneity, Shas was not immune from bitter infighting over the spoils of office, as shown by the rivalry between factions led by Rabbi Peretz and Rabbi Arieh Dari, leader of the party's apparatus, who remained director general of the Ministry of Interior until the National Unity Government's term ended in 1988. Shas gained four Knesset seats in the 1984 elections and increased the size of its delegation to six in 1988. In late 1988, it actually held eight Knesset seats when combined with the two seats gained by Degel HaTorah, a Shas Ashkenazi faction formed in 1988.



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