In September 1989 I held an interview with Interior Minister Arye Deri for an English-language monthly – Spectrum – I edited at the time for the Labor Party, for distribution among members of the Socialist International. Besides presenting news and information from a Labor perspective, I regularly included interviews with politicians from other political parties designed to demonstrate that the Israeli political reality is varied and complicated, and cannot be viewed just in terms of black and white.
I recently went to the trouble of searching for this interview, mainly because I remembered how impressed I was with the 30-year-old minister, who had been appointed to the position in December 1988 and seemed like a breath of fresh air. An ultra-religious Mizrahi who was capable of seeking pragmatic solutions to issues on the Ashkenazi secular agenda (at the time of the interview these included the regularization of daylight savings time, cancellation of censorship on plays, and the nationality item on the identity cards of immigrants who had been converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbis), and who though critical of the Labor Party for its pragmatic, unemotional attitude to Eretz Yisrael (which, according to him, had pushed many Sephardim into the arms of the political Right) did not view it and its predecessors as an enemy of the religious sector and the Mizrahim. In fact, at the time Deri was close to both Shimon Peres (who was vice premier and minister of finance in Yitzhak Shamir’s government) and Histadrut secretary general and MK Yisrael Kessar.
Very little seems to remain of the young Deri I interviewed back in 1989, looking at the 59-year-old Deri of today. The young Deri was not yet involved in the sort of financial corruption that would have him sent to prison in 2000, and for which he is currently being investigated.
In 1989 (the 12th Knesset) Shas under Deri’s political leadership had six Knesset seats, and was to further rise to 17(!) in the 15th Knesset. The Shas that Deri leads today has seven seats, and some opinion polls predict that it might not pass the qualifying threshold in the next elections.
However, the greatest differences have to do with the basic positions and policies Deri advocated then and advocates today. In 1989 Deri presented himself as a liberal, eager to avert both coalition crises and avoidable splits within the Jewish people, or in his own words: “I try at all times to find the common denominator between people rather than what divides them.”
The change could already be observed in the Shas election campaign to the 20th Knesset, during which Deri insisted on adding “Machluf” to his name – apparently to emphasize his Moroccan origins – and directly accused the Ashkenazi elites, in fiery language, of degrading the Mizrahim, and blamed them for their misery.
The current version of Deri insisted on ramming through the “Supermarkets Law,” allegedly to return the pristine honor of Shabbat, to which a majority in the Knesset and large portion of the secular and traditional Israeli population object, but which went through with the overly active support of the coalition management, to avert yet another storm in the coalition teacup.
What is most infuriating about this superfluous law is that it attempts to preserve an outdated religious status quo, that large sections of the population resent and object to, without contributing anything to the coexistence of the various sections of Israeli society, or respect for religious practices among those parts of the population that are not religious.
I myself do not consider shopping part of my Shabbat, which I devote to writing, walking and visiting friends and relatives. It is very rarely that I go to one of the small 24/7 supermarkets that operate in Jerusalem on Saturdays, but only when I discover I forgot to buy something on Friday which I urgently need (usually for cooking purposes). I view this as a convenience rather than a life-or-death issue.
However, while I certainly would be happier if people didn’t view shopping on Saturday as a regular, planned activity and engaged in recreational or cultural activities instead, trying to enforce this by law, under threat of fines or other sanctions, seems counterproductive, besides being undemocratic. I believe that the 1989 Deri would have agreed with me.
The current version of Deri also justifies the expulsion of tens of thousands of African refugees, without seriously checking their requests for asylum and refugee status before doing so, while denying – contrary to all the hard evidence – that the policy involves forced expulsion. Deri is also one of those insisting that those being expelled are being sent to destinations where they will be safe and secure – again, contrary to all the hard evidence.
In 1989 the refugee problem in the world was not as acute as it is today, though in Israel the outbreak of the First Intifada in 1987 certainly created a need for cheap workers to replace Palestinian workers from the territories, and this certainly increased the attractiveness of Israel as a destination for both asylum and employment seekers.
However, I find it immoral and cruel for anyone to engage in the policy that Israel is currently pursuing, and especially repulsive when it is Jews who are the perpetrators. I believe that those who actively engage in these policies – including Deri – have “forgotten what it means to be Jews,” and if they insist that there is no contradiction between what they are doing and being Jewish, then I am ashamed to be a Jew, or alternatively reject their definition of what it means to be Jewish.
Shas was established back in 1984 to “return the pristine glory” to the Sephardi Jews, and Deri was the promising symbol of this aspiration. It seems to me that all that remains is Deri’s and his party’s desperate attempt to survive, without any sort of glory – certainly not of the pristine variety.