Israel’s government entered into elections over serious matters (the economy, taxes, settlement policy, right-wingery), but the election season has been dominated by not so serious campaign ads. Just about every major party has produced some sort of satirical clip that would never air on U.S. television. While American ads go negative, Israel’s version of bashing an opponent’s record, or arrest history, is making fun of the other parties’ constituents.
Last week the religious right-wing group Shas posted a video on Facebook poking fun at Tel Aviv’s liberal elite. The joke is that liberals want too much of the cake. In vignettes they are shown kvetching over the difficulties of maintaining a middle class lifestyle, all the while ignoring the working class Israelis who serve them, and wash their cars and mop their floors. That’s where Shas comes in, “It’s not easy to be middle class,” says the video’s tagline. “But we at Shas are not worried about them. Our first concern will be the two million invisible Israelis living under the poverty line.”
The ad also hinted at racial and ethnic tensions: the workers are all Jews of color and the complainers are predominately white. The frankness is refreshing. Campaign ads do not usually call a spade a spade. All the way in upstate New York, Phil Weiss said he and a friend were “thrilled” by it; they read the ad as populist.
So exactly how will Shas support these “two million invisible Israelis living under the poverty line”? Historically Shas has built schools across Israel to serve underprivileged regions, predominantly inhabited by Mizrahim, Jews of Middle Eastern background. The parents of these schoolchildren comprise the Shas base. In fact Shas was the first Israeli political party to state outright they represent Mizrahim. When the group was founded in the 1980s, this was a breakaway from establishment politics, which were Ashkenazi-dominated. Moreover, the decade before income gaps between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim had grown. Shas entered the political field at a time when Mizrahim were not only underrepresented and underserved, but also really, left out of the whole Israeli landscape.
At that time the settlement movement was in its infancy. It would take another decade before Israel shut down its public housing program and shifted low-income housing over the Green Line or to areas of “demographic” consequence, e.g. “judaizing” areas where Arab-Palestinians have population strongholds. From the 1990s on, Shas straddled the issues of serving Israeli’s poor, traditionally a platform of the left, and funding Israel’s settlers, an issue of the right.
Never mind what Shas wants from government, which is religious law over all of the land of Israel and yes, social services for the poor. As far as a Palestinian state, or Palestinian national rights, they are totally opposed. Their last spiritual leader notably called for killing Arabs in 2010: “You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable.”
Shas is a religious party. Its leadership is almost entirely religious, its gives a special place to the directions of the chief Sephardi rabbi and its religious schools have been the source of its expanding voter base. But the party’s flexibility has been the key to its endurance. Half of its constituents are not observant and it’s been able to survive by making political compromises in order to secure a spot in whatever party rules the government.