Israelis debate the definition of a 'true' Jewish state

Religious Israelis plan rally today in support of convicted leader of an ultra-Orthodox party.

When the verdict was reached last month, an Israeli Supreme Court judge read it over the radio.

This means of delivery put Aryeh Deri in exclusive company - including Adolf Eichmann and John Demjanjuk, both tried and convicted for Nazi war crimes.

But Mr. Deri, a leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas political party, begins serving a three-year sentence next week for more mundane misdeeds: fraud and bribery. His followers say the court's heavy-handed actions were a clear case of discrimination against the Sephardim, Jews of North African and Middle-Eastern origin that Shas represents.

Deri and his party have become a social and political lightening rod in Israel. Critics say Shas practices the politics of resentment, with its claims of anti-Sephardic prejudice by the Ashkenazi, or Jews of European origin. Supporters counter that the party is the true defender of Jewish values.

The battle-lines in this conflict crisscross in several ways, reflecting tensions between ethnic groups and between the religious and the secular. The core issue underlying the invective is what kind of country Israelis want the Jewish state to be.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak recently launched a campaign to "secularize" Israel, abolishing the Religious Affairs Ministry and allowing civil marriage. This infuriates Shas members, who feel that religion is central to Jewish identity and to Israel.

Shape of things to come

"The issues of state and religion which we've tried to avoid for 50 years are becoming a central question now," says Zeev Sternhell, a political science professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "We must decide for the future what we want for ourselves or our children. Whether we want to be a modern Western state or something between religious fundamentalism and modernity."

Because of Shas's growing political strength in the Knesset, or Israeli parliament, the ramifications of this bitter family squabble affect outsiders as well. Shas is opposed to exchanging land for peace with the Palestinians. Should current peace talks fail and Shas gain more seats in the next election, its influence could stymie future peace efforts.

Israelis will feel their clout more immediately on Sept. 3, when hundreds of thousands of Shas supporters are expected to block traffic and accompany Deri to jail garbed in prison wear and mock handcuffs.

Today's tensions have been simmering since Israel's creation in 1948. The European Jews, fired by the Zionist dream of a homeland, settled the area for years. When Sephardic Jews began arriving, culture and a different outlook on Zionism divided the two groups.

Most Europeans had a secular vision of their new homeland as a country for Jews. For the Sephardim, Zionism was more of a biblical mission to settle Israel to speed the coming of the Messiah.

The differences took more concrete form as well. Since Europeans had founded the state, it was easier for other European immigrants to fit in. Many also came to Israel with war reparations from Germany. Sephardic immigrants generally arrived without much money and often found themselves in crowded "development camps" without economic opportunity.

The broad-brush differences between well off, secular-leaning Jews of European descent and the poorer, religious Sephardic Jews remain today. But Sephardic resentment had no successful outlet until Shas - an acronym for "Sephardic Guardians of the Torah" - was founded in 1984. Shas climbed from six Knesset seats in 1992 to 17 now, putting it right behind the Likud party in number in seats.

With a network of schools that contributes to its burgeoning power, it is now the third-largest party in parliament and a political kingmaker, courted by the left and right for alliances.

Conflict of cultures

And Sephardim are proud. Dorit Mizrahi, an announcer at a Shas radio station, says the party is opening doors that have long been closed to Sephardim.

"Until now, 300 people in Israel have been allowed to wield influence," she says, tucking a wisp of black hair back under her head scarf. "Shas is allowing people and the rich Sephardic culture to develop."

Shas' strength has prompted sharp reactions from secular Israelis who say they fear the imposition of a theocracy if the party gains more power. One Knesset member has even been quoted comparing Shas leaders with the mullahs of Iran.

This kind of language convinces people like Ms. Mizrahi that Deri is the innocent victim of entrenched powers. Posters in her neighborhood decry the "hatred of the elites" who have sentenced him.

Political scientist Charles Liebman echoes that assessment, noting that the convictions bar Deri from serving in parliament - a further goad to his supporters. "It was an effort by the establishment to totally blacken Deri," he says. "He is politically the most talented representative of Shas and, they're afraid [of Shas]."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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