What was unimaginable for many is now reality. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas movement, has died and the party is left rudderless in stormy seas, without the authoritative voice of its former captain.
The revered rabbi did not groom a successor, and no single candidate for the role will ever be able to approach the command of the party that Yosef wielded.
Most worryingly for Shas, the return of Arye Deri to lead the party for a second time, following his conviction on corruption charges and subsequent political exile, created serious political divisions within the movement while Yosef was still alive.
Then-party chairman Eli Yishai fought fiercely to prevent Deri from supplanting him as Shas political leader, but failed. Unity was never restored, and discontent within Shas among Yishai loyalists, including senior MKs, has smoldered in the year since Deri was brought back to the party leadership by Yosef.
Yishai himself has quietly rejected Deri’s authority since the latter was formally appointed party chairman in May, to the extent that Deri spoke out against Yishai two months ago for acting like “a one-man party.”
These divisions are now expected to become ever deeper, with political recriminations likely to turn into a full-blown internal conflict in the coming months and years.
The only real authority either Deri – or his predecessor Yishai – as Shas chairman had, was closeness to Yosef and ability to say that Yosef had ruled a certain way.
The authority vacuum left by Yosef means that the fighting political factions may try to claim for themselves the right to their spiritual mentor’s legacy, and thereby permit themselves to ignore any new rabbinic authority set up by the opposing side.
As a Shas source commented recently to The Jerusalem Post, the likelihood that Shas will continue to be the single and united force of the Sephardi community much beyond the next general election is small.
Two serious incidents this year have already shown how the future might look for the Shas party.
In the general election this past January, two new parties competed with Shas for Sephardi voters.
One was headed by Haim Amsalem, a renegade Shas MK who spoke out against Shas policy on several issues and was eventually expelled by the party.
His new party, Am Shalem, sought to take moderate, religious voters away from Shas and garnered over 40,000 votes, although this was not enough to pass the electoral threshold and enter the Knesset.
A separate party headed by maverick Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak also competed for the votes of devoutly religious Sephardim, and took upwards of 20,000 votes.
Deri himself, in defending Shas’s showing of 11 Knesset seats in the elections, said that the votes lost to Amsalem and Yitzhak represented three Knesset seats lost to Shas.
The second serious challenge to Yosef and Shas, also occurring this year, was the campaign led by former Sephardi chief rabbi Shlomo Amar against the Shas candidate for Sephardi chief rabbi, Yosef’s son Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.
Amar, angered by the fact that Deri scuppered legislation to allow him to serve a second term, backed Rabbi Tzion Boaron, a senior rabbi on the Supreme Rabbinical Court against Yitzhak Yosef, and refused to back down despite the request of Yosef senior.
Ultimately, Yitzhak Yosef prevailed, but Boaron managed to gain close to 20 percent of the vote, in the face of Shas domination of the electoral body and a strong national-religious candidate.
The political challenges to Yosef’s authority inherent in the actions of Amsalem, Yitzhak and Amar do not bode well for a united Shas in the coming years.
And the issue of political leadership and authority is not the only serious problem facing the movement.
The basis of Shas’s power and support over the last two decades has been to a large extent the near universal attraction and adoration of Yosef by the Sephardi community.
For many religious and traditional members of the community, the simple fact that Yosef headed the movement was enough for them to vote for the party.
Without the rabbi, it seems that many Shas voters – especially the non-religious or traditional ones – will abandon the party for more moderate incarnations of political religion, or for mainstream parties such as Likud or Bayit Yehudi.
Amsalem speculated two weeks ago that Shas will lose 70% of its non-haredi voters once Yosef dies, and that the party’s political strength would consequently be scaled back in a way similar to that of Ashkenazi haredi party United Torah Judaism, which currently has seven Knesset seats.
As to who will try and claim to be the inheritor of Yosef, there are perhaps three or four serious candidates, each with their own advantages and drawbacks.
Having been elected Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef would appear to be in a healthy position to inherit the authority of his father.
He is a redoubtable Torah scholar who has written an exhaustive work on Jewish law. Additionally, the very fact that he wears the robe and hat of the chief rabbi, which Yosef wore and continued to wear, is a powerful symbol of authority and respect.
At the same time, now that Yitzhak Yosef holds a position of public office, he is prohibited by law from being politically active. He also lacks charisma and until the election, he never held any formal public office or leadership position.
A Shas source speculated that Yitzhak Yosef could possibly consider stepping down as chief rabbi, but that such a move would be “problematic.”
Amar is another potential successor who served until recently as Sephardi chief rabbi, and was extremely close to Yosef up until their falling out over the Chief Rabbinate elections this summer.
He is well-regarded as a halachic authority, although not as highly as Yitzhak Yosef, and has considerable ambition, charisma and leadership experience.
Nevertheless, his efforts to gain Shas backing for legislation to allow him to stand for a second term as chief rabbi were disabled by Deri, who considers him too close to Yishai.
If Deri was concerned enough to oppose a second term for Amar, he will likely do everything in his considerable power to prevent Amar from taking over Shas.
Additionally, Yosef did not forgive Amar for his behavior and subsequent events during Yosef’s final hospitalization, which soured relations between the Yosef family and Amar even further.
Rabbi Avraham Yosef, the oldest living son of Yosef, is another possibility. He has greater leadership experience, having been chief rabbi of Holon since 1998, and was expected to be named as Shas candidate for Sephardi chief rabbi – until accusations of breach of trust relating to his tenure as Holon chief rabbi resurfaced.
The fact that he is now unencumbered by public office and is the rabbi’s eldest surviving child means he cannot be ruled out as a potential successor.
It will take time for the fog to clear in the aftermath of Yosef’s death, before the impact of his passing will become apparent.
What is certain is that Shas, and so too Israeli politics, will not be the same again.