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Comeback Kid

Yisroel Besser

Aryeh Deri has traveled a long road back to the leadership of Shas, yet, while the seat and the title may look familiar, it’s a wiser and warier Deri, struggling to keep his party relevant

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

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NEW MAN The prison doors slammed shut behind him, but the singing and dancing continued. Would the crowds wait it out together with him? “I don’t have that much time to think about these things, but I admit that it’s an extraordinary story. I was chased out of here and nearly buried and Hashem has allowed me to come back here and do it all over again” (Photos: Lior Mizrachi, Flash90)

I t was the day before Pesach and the halls of Israel’s Interior Ministry were empty, politicians and staffers gone home to prepare for the chag.

But in the large office on the second floor, no one was pulling out early. Empty energy-drink cans lined the table — steady cigarette breaks did little to diffuse the tension in the room.

It’s a new world, said an intense young man chewing on a pen. People don’t come to events they can watch online. It’s not like it was. It will be an epic failure.

The funding for the scheduled Kabbalat Pnei Rabo event — once, during the Shas party’s halcyon days, a staple of its calendar — was in jeopardy of being cut by the municipal authorities. Altogether, there was a strong feeling that the party and its leadership were over-reaching, hosting what was effectively a political rally in the massive Teddy Stadium, scheduled for the Thursday of Chol Hamoed Pesach. It’s not election season, the staffers argued, so we have nothing to gain. If it fails, we look weak and feed the perception that Shas isn’t what it once was. The A-list singers — Fried and Ben-David and Shwekey, sure crowd-gatherers — weren’t available.

But the boss wanted it. Aryeh Deri was insistent that they could do this. The people would come. Chacham Shalom Cohen, the party’s spiritual head and the rav whom the masses were coming to greet, would draw the bnei hayeshivah. The rank and file would come as well, loyal to the party just as they always were.

Okay, organizers shrugged even as their expressions showed doubt, let’s do it. Buses were arranged from across the country, deposits given to vendors.

And then came the reports of rain.

Exactly the type of thing that can give people second thoughts: No one wants to be stuck in an open-air stadium during a downpour.

It was a sign from Heaven, said some of those at the table, a rope with which to climb down from the tree.

Aryeh Deri reached out to some high-ranking contacts, bypassing regular meteorologists and calling the army’s weather bureau. “It’s supposed to rain, I can’t tell you otherwise,” said the army meteorologist. “If our men were embarking on a mission that needed sunlight, I wouldn’t take a chance. But listen, if you have faith, pray a little and it might work out...”

Motzaei Yom Tov, the forecast hadn’t changed. It looked like rain. Maybe. The naysayers persisted. Cancel it. The rain was a gift.

Chacham Ovadiah became the hero of the Sephardic street, while young Aryeh Deri became the face of the new movement

Aryeh Deri didn’t want to cancel it, but he wasn’t sure. It was his 21-year-old son, Yehuda, who clinched it. “Abba, we have a meeting with the police tonight, we’re confirmed. We’re going ahead with it.”

The innocent, headstrong determination of youth. A brash confidence Deri himself had once known, a long time ago.

THE PICTURES TAKEN the next day at Shas’s Yom Tov event show the Shas party chairman, his face bright as the rays of the spring sunshine, illuminating the sea of faces all around him.

In a strange way, the worry and doubt added to the success of the event, and Deri fed off that in his speech. It was the perfect Shas ending, a mix of resilience, faith, and open Divine favor.

Then Deri pulled out another trick from his bag. With a trace of the old fire in his eyes, looking more youthful than he has in a while, the minister crowed, “And we are so proud to announce a mivtzah rishum, a registration campaign. Call now, operators are standing by, 1-800-222-444.”

There, he seemed to say, you wanted to taste the flavor of Shas and its glory days, you’ve got it.

Throughout those blessed years, the party that grew more confident and influential with each election had made this into a mantra, the toll-free hotline shouted out again and again at every opportunity, an invitation to traditional parents across the country to register their children in Shas’s Torah schools. Over time, the concept lost some its steam. The hotline fell into disuse.

And now, it was exuberantly being resuscitated, a new Shas drive to register students of the peripheral cities of Israel and welcome them to Torah schools, Shas’s El Hama’ayan network. Fathers smiled, their faces painted with nostalgia as they leaned over to their sons and told them of a different time, a different Deri.

“Call, call, call now,” Deri sang and the crowd roared its approval, appreciating the symbolism. Acting quickly, in the days following Pesach, Shas purchased airtime on secular radio stations. The message was: We’re open for business.

In a way, the whole story illustrates the struggle of the party and its chairman: a party heavy on symbolism and tradition that fights to recapture the old magic even as it’s forced to contend with new competitors and remain relevant today.

SHAS HAD ITS BEGINNINGS in 1984, when Rav Shach encouraged Chacham Ovadiah Yosef to galvanize the Sephardic street and form a political party, a sort of protest against the lack of Sephardic representation in the government. From the outset, it was a party with a religious mission, and its slogan, L’hachzir atarah l’yoshnah (“restore the crown to its rightful place”), reflected this. Aryeh Deri, then in in his early twenties, had the charisma, smarts, and drive to serve as the political arm. Chacham Ovadiah would provide the direction and inspire the masses. The Chevron Yeshivah graduate would do the rest.

The party shocked pundits when it drew not just religious voters, but traditional and even secular Sephardic Jews, tapping into a deep anger and resentment among the base. Deri quickly displayed his political savvy by positioning himself between the two major parties in Israel: Shas’s seats could make or break a government.

At the age of 29, Deri became the youngest interior minister in Israel’s history. Over the years, he would serve as a minister under prime ministers from both the right and left. From the four seats with which they began, the numbers kept rising.

Shas started with six seats in the 13th Knesset, and earned ten seats in the next elections. Deri, true to his word, developed a new type of Sephardic politician — men of the people. He tapped a Chinuch Atzmai teacher from Acco, an egg salesman from Moshav Ya’arah in the north. He filled the Knesset benches with people with little formal political experience, but lots of passion and heart.

There seemed to be no stopping the force Shas had unleashed, waking the giant that had been sleeping since the State’s early days. The Sephardic street took notice of their new champions: Chacham Ovadiah became their folk hero; young Aryeh Deri, the face of a new movement.

In the late 1990s, the government announced an investigation into Deri’s private financial affairs, a move the Shas faithful saw as a desperate attempt to shut down the Sephardic rebirth. Deri saw the political opportunity and crisscrossed the country sharing the message that the government wasn’t after Aryeh Deri, but the revolution itself, the “Sephardic spring,” the return of pride and dignity to a demographic the elites would rather see seated in back of the national bus.

In the winter of 1999, new elections were announced, but this time, Shas appeared poised for defeat. Their chairman was not only under investigation, he was barred from serving in the Knesset. It seemed like the Deri era was over.

But he was still chairman, and he hinged the success of the new campaign on a single issue: the persecution of Aryeh Deri and what that meant for all of them, his voters.

He released a video, one that political parties and campaigns have used as a model ever since. Titled, Ani Ma’ashim (J’accuse, or I Accuse) it featured little by way of special effects. It was just Deri, seated between massive portraits of Rav Ovadiah and Rav Yitzchak Kadouri and speaking for close to two hours, a mix of anguish and allegation. The video, directed by former film star Rav Uri Zohar, was distributed at rallies, shopping malls, highway junctures, and makeshift tables in Geulah.

In May of 1999, elections were held. Many pundits counted out Shas and its beleaguered chairman, but the Shas magic was still alive. The video worked. Chacham Ovadiah’s exhortations worked. Aryeh Deri’s challenge to Sephardic pride worked.

Shas became the third-largest party in the country, with 17 seats.

Deri, architect of victory, couldn’t serve in the Knesset, but he found a calling. During that long, hot summer of 1999, he presided over one rally after another — the elections were over, but the fight was just starting. It was about spirit and pride and dignity, about standing tall. And of course, registration for the new school year: call 1-800… Each rally closed with Deri himself taking the stage, often accompanied by the gravelly-voiced Rav Uri Zohar, leading the crowd in Deri’s adopted theme song, Tehei hasha’ah hazot she’at rachamim.

Deri was found guilty, sentenced to three years in prison for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. On September 4, 2000, a crowd of thousands accompanied him to the gates of the Maasiyahu Prison, for one final rally. Uri Zohar urged citizens to protest the injustice by registering their children in Torah schools. Chacham Ovadiah’s parting message was clear: The party was a pikadon, (the halachic term for an item left with another for safekeeping), Deri was its owner, and it would be returned to him when he was back.

The prison doors slammed shut behind him, but the singing and dancing continued. A tent was erected, and a yeshivah grew on the site. Called Sha’agat Aryeh, the lion’s roar, it drew hundreds of visitors over that Elul zeman. The sound of Torah, they said, was the most symbolic form of protest for the man who’d done so much for the Torah world.

They wouldn’t forget him, they would keep on protesting and learning. Sha’agat Aryeh, with its newly erected washrooms and kitchen, became the Chol Hamoed destination that Succos — part yeshivah with constant shiurim from prominent rabbanim, part carnival grounds with entertainment and concerts and the heady air that marks the center of a revolution. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 660)

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