JERUSALEM, Sept. 4 (JTA) — The man who galvanized Israel’s working-class Sephardi community into a political force is serving a three-year jail sentence for taking bribes.
Former Shas Party leader Aryeh Deri was surrounded by tens of thousands of supporters when he reported to a prison detention center Sunday.
At a solidarity rally organized at the entrance to the Nitzan detention facility in central Israel, Deri told an estimated crowd of 15,000 to 20,000 supporters that he accepts the jail sentence with love.
“I tell you I will soon enter these walls with a happy heart because I accept with happiness the will of the Holy One, blessed be he,” Deri told the crowd.
Deri was ordered by Israel’s Supreme Court last week to begin serving a three-year jail sentence for accepting $60,000 in bribes. The court had rejected his appeal of the conviction and a request to begin serving after the High Holidays, which begin at the end of September.
Deri has insisted he’s innocent, claiming his conviction was ethnically motivated. In remarks on Shas radio stations the previous night, Deri reiterated his charge that he is the victim of persecution by the Ashkenazi, left-wing establishment.
“The ruling group had one sacred objective — to put Arye Deri in jail,” Deri said.
He also claimed that “80 percent of the judges” and prosecutors are supporters of the left-wing Meretz Party.
This message was carried by Shas supporters at the solidarity rally, who waved signs reading “Free Deri” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Stopped.” In the skies above them, a counterdemonstration took place in the form of a motorized paraglider that flew over the rally, the words “Number One Thief” written on the sail.
Police were on alert for possible violence by Shas supporters. With the exception of some incidents of rock-throwing at police and journalists, the activists apparently heeded an appeal from leaders of the fervently Orthodox party to act with restraint.
Deri’s incarceration was a focal point for social tensions that have simmered throughout the summer. Reflecting the ongoing religious-secular rift in Israeli society, the conflict recently heated up over remarks made by Shas leaders about the Holocaust and attacks on the legal system.
This in turn sparked a secular outcry, including a call by some intellectuals for creation of a Shas-free, secular “New Israel.”
In Jerusalem on Sunday, members of kibbutz youth movements held a pro-democracy vigil outside the Supreme Court building.
The tensions also take place against the backdrop of Israeli coalition politics and the faltering peace process.
Shas pulled out of the government in July in protest over the Camp David summit, as well as what it termed Barak’s “humiliating” treatment of the party.
Critics of Shas counter that Barak had heeded most of the party’s demands. They also note that as the third-largest faction in the Knesset with 17 members, Shas cannot try to present itself as a downtrodden political entity.
Some commentators have suggested that when two other right-wing parties pulled out of the government, Shas preferred not to risk the political uncertainty of remaining aligned with Barak and peace concessions that would be hard to sell to hawkish party supporters.
In the latest move connected with this issue, the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday approved the dismantling of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the distribution of its power to various government ministries and local authorities. Acting Religious Affairs Minister Yossi Beilin, who has proposed the idea, said it was intended to separate politics from religious services.
Deri’s incarceration raises questions over the political future of Shas, which is divided by internal power struggles between those loyal to Deri and those to party’s current leader, Eli Yishai.
Yona Deri, the jailed leader’s sister-in-law, told Israel Army Radio on Sunday that it was clear Deri would return to some position of leadership after he completes his sentence. “I don’t know what kind of position, but it is clear to me he will hold a leadership position, perhaps even greater than any he has held before,” she said.