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Israel’s Shas Party Gets Controversial New Leader

Rabbi Shalom Cohen has likened Modern Orthodox Jews to Amalek

Batya Ungar-Sargon
April 18, 2014
Rabbi Shalom Cohen. (Yonatan Sindel)
Rabbi Shalom Cohen. (Yonatan Sindel)

The Shas party has a new spiritual leader. Shalom Cohen, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Porat Yosef religious seminary, will replace Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who died last year, as the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Sephardi Shas Party. Aryeh Deri remains the political leader of the party, which is Israel’s fifth largest and holds 11 out of 120 Knesset seats.

Cohen is a controversial rabbi perhaps best known for saying that anyone who voted for Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi party is going to hell, or his statement suggesting that anyone who wears a knitted yarmulke, as is customary for modern Orthodox Jews, is part of the tribe of Amalek—a group the Bible demands be wiped out.

After his appointment was announced, Cohen made a statement that made no secret of his animosity towards the other political parties, JTA reports:

“They hate us, all the ignoramuses of the Jewish Home and Yesh Atid,” Cohen said, referencing the Zionist Orthodox party headed by Naftali Bennett and the secularist party headed by Yair Lapid, respectively. “There is no difference between the two. The Ha-Kadosh barukh Hu [God] wants us to stay away from them. They are there, we are here. They will pursue their nonsense, we will pursue our holy Torah.”

Because Israel runs on a parliamentary political system, the government’s ability to legislate is based on coalitions within the government which often include Shas, giving it more negotiating power than its size would suggest, though it is not part of Benjamin Netanyahu’s current coalition government.

The real question is how much power Cohen will wield over the party, most of whose voters are not themselves religious. Ovadia Yosef held significant power, but he had a hand in building the party in 1984 and had been the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.

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