05/17/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Israeli Sephardim as Tea Partiers

In Maureen Dowd's Op-Ed in today's New York Times she examines the current flap between the US and Israel. Included in the article is a strong rebuke of the SHAS party. SHAS' Eli Yishai is the Housing Minister whose green-lighting of construction of Jewish homes in East Jerusalem is at the center of the controversy.

Quoting The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg: I

t's not entirely clear to me that the SHAS Party knows who Joe Biden is or cares ... They have very narrow theological interests that don't conform to the theological interests of American Jews. The high-tech entrepreneurs of Tel Aviv relate to the SHAS Party about as well as the Jews of the Upper West Side relate to the Tea Party. The SHAS Party is not overly attuned to the American-Israel relationship or the peace process.

SHAS is rightly described as a Sephardi Ultra-Orthodox party which is part of the Hard Right Wing coalition in the Netanyahu government.

What is not questioned is how Sephardim became Ultra-Orthodox.

Upon their arrival in Israel, many Jews from the Arab world were stigmatized as second-class citizens, seen as lacking the intelligence and sophistication of Jews from European countries. The acculturation of Sephardic Jews into the Israeli mainstream was slow and painful. The SHAS party was formed in the early 1980s by an ultra-religious cadre of rabbis and laypeople under the leadership of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

It is important for us to know something about Rabbi Yosef when assessing what SHAS represents.

On the one hand, Rabbi Yosef's rulings on ritual matters were often more liberal than his Ashkenazi counterparts, sometimes leading to tensions between the groups. And during the initial Oslo process he was a strong advocate of the Land-for-Peace formula.

On the other hand, Rabbi Yosef was often oblivious to the massive defection of his own Sephardic community to the Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox Yeshivas. A power struggle between Yosef and Rabbi Elazar Shach, the head of the Lithuanian Ponevezh Yeshiva, took place and tested the unity of the SHAS group.

Shach, typical of the Ashkenazi ethnocentrism of both the Orthodox Jewish world and Zionist-Israeli culture, questioned the ability of Sephardim to lead themselves. Echoes of such Ashkenazi ethnocentrism appear in Jeffrey Goldberg's comments in the Dowd article.

As the years went by and the Oslo process died an ignominious death, SHAS gradually became a bigger player in the Israeli political system. Its views began to shift to the hard right as relationships with other Nationalist and Haredi parties were seen as more expeditious than remaining independent of the system.

In this sense, SHAS mirrored the wider Sephardi population in Israel as it chose to integrate itself into what is still a stridently Ashkenazi culture.

The rise and fall of SHAS leader Aryeh Deri is an important case in point. Harboring the traditional Sephardi resentment of the Ashkenazi elite and the Israeli status quo, Deri played a very dangerous game of political musical chairs that he eventually lost -- he was thrown in jail back in 2000 for a corruption conviction.

In spite of this, SHAS continued to soldier on and as the years went by the moderate political stance of Rabbi Yosef morphed into a harder-edged Right Wing position. Israeli Sephardim often made common cause with the Settler community and adopted a Jewish chauvinism that completely ignored the traditional Religious Humanism of the Maimonidean tradition.

A major factor in this political transformation was the manner in which the religious leadership of SHAS, particularly Rabbi Yosef, avoided integrating the wider Sephardic curriculum into its pedagogic and socio-cultural program.

Rabbi Yosef is widely admired as an authority on Jewish law, but is not at all noted for his wider learning. His many books are limited to discussions of Jewish rituals and the long tradition of the legal decisors, Poskim, that he quotes with great expertise.

Missing from those books is the philosophical-intellectual values of the Liberal Arts and Sciences that were central to the Sephardic-Andalusian tradition.

Many older Iraqi Jews -- Rabbi Yosef was born in Baghdad -- recall from their youth a very different religious culture than what we see today in SHAS and at times express their disdain for the new regime and its values. Like much of Israeli religiosity, the SHAS juggernaut turns back many of the values of the past.

This translates into the political and cultural intransigence of the present-day SHAS party.

A video of two Sephardi men screaming and hurling curses and racist epithets at the Sheikh Jarrah protesters was widely distributed in the activist community and reflects the continuing battle being waged between the Israeli Left, which is primarily an Ashkenazi elitist group, and the Sephardim who are seen as racist boors lacking culture and civilization.

The problem is complex in the sense that indeed many Israeli Sephardim and the SHAS party have now eliminated much of their own traditional culture and have adopted that of the Right Wing Ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim and the Ultra-Nationalists.

Recent controversies in Israel involving Ultra-Orthodox rejection of Sephardi pupils in their schools have shown us that some Sephardim desperately want to be part of the Ashkenazi religious world. Many SHAS rallies - the most famous was the rally for Aryeh Deri in front of the prison he was sent to serve his sentence in - provide the visual evidence in the form of the Black Hats and suits that are the standard couture of the Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox.

Though it is sad to see the cultural degeneration of the Israeli Sephardim, it is nonetheless true that the community now represents, as Maureen Dowd and many others have stated, a viciously reactionary element in the Israeli political system. Though we must point out that the Sephardic Jewish tradition is open, pluralistic, and deeply committed to liberal values, the current situation shows us that Sephardim have rejected such progressive values.