The restrictive and disproportionate influence of Israel's ultra-religious establishment on the government and a broad swath of daily life of ordinary Israelis is a leading reason why American Jews no longer feel the strong connection to Israel they once did. Also contributing to the drift is the corruption in the nation's largest religious political and the open disdain many of the haredim have for Diaspora Jews who don't share their extremist beliefs.
Nowhere is that more on display than in the Shas party and the return to its leadership of Aryeh Deri. Thirteen years after he was sent to prison for bribery and forced to resign as minister of the Interior and head of Shas, he's back on top. Deri's rival, Eli Yishai was pushed out by the spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party so a convicted felon could take back the reins of a party with a reputation for corruption and extortion.
Shas is known for selling its votes to any big party that will bring it into the government so that it can have access to the national treasury to finance its institutions and projects, and to impose its views on public policy in immigration, education, settlement construction, welfare assistance and religious practices.
Deri was removed as party chairman 13 years ago when he was convicted of receiving bribes and taking advantage of his posts at the Interior ministry to channel public funds to Shas's religious schools and social service programs.
Deri is not the only corrupt Shas leader to go to prison. Shlomo Benizri was sentenced to four years in 2009 for taking bribes while serving as minister of labor and welfare. But don't get the impression Shas is unique in that category. Former Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson of Kadima was sent to the slammer for five years for embezzling from a labor union but released for good behavior after only two years.
And who can forget former President Moshe Katzav, who is in prison for rape and sexual assault. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is on trial for fraud and breach of trust, and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is currently on trial for corruption.
Deri's 10-year ban on serving in government is over, and if Shas joins the government – which it very much desires -- look for him to demand a lucrative ministry as the price of his party's votes. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted Shas in his current government and would welcome it back today were it not that his two major coalition partners, Yesh Atid and Habayit Yehudi, object to including any ultra-Orthodox parties.
A major point of contention is the demand by Yesh Atid and Habayit Yehudi to end the ultra-Orthodox exemption from military service. Shas is adamantly opposed to that
The man pulling the strings in Shas is Deri's patron, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who dominates Shas' ruling body, the Council of Torah Sages. The 92-year-old spiritual leader of Shas is a purveyor of hate who has said, "Goyim (gentiles) were born only to serve" Jews; a major tsunami and other natural disasters were "because of too little Torah study"; the 6 million Holocaust victims were "reincarnations of the souls of sinners"; Israeli soldiers killed fighting in Lebanon were suffering God's retribution for their lack of Torah observance, and teachers in secular schools "are mostly evil."
Such intolerance, corruption and the attempts to press their belief system on the rest of society have alienated many American Jews. The Constitutional separation of religion and state has made America a comfortable and secure home for the Jews. Religious extremism is anathema.
The rise of the religious right in American politics has been a major factor in keeping most Jews out of the Republican Party, which has embraced much of the political agenda of the evangelical movement, and voting overwhelmingly Democratic.
Arieh Deri, Ovadia Yosef and Shas are the best arguments yet for the separation of religion and state in Israel.
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