Powerful lessons: Ultra-orthodox awkward squad

Rabbi Obadia Yosef's hardline Shas party is an implacable opponent of the two-state solution. And its influence over a generation of young Israelis is growing. By Donald Macintyre

In a schoolroom in the heart of the growing immigrant town of Beit Shemesh – its Jewish origins dating back to biblical times – Rabbi Pinchas Mazuz is conducting a boisterous class of teenage boys who attend this yeshiva with a difference. This afternoon's lesson seeks answers to the question of what you would tell a visitor from abroad about how to conduct the Seder, the ritual family meal on the first night of Passover, and the students, preparing for a test on just this subject eagerly shout back their answers: clearing the house of chametz, or leavened bread, the reading of the Haggadah, the account of the Jews' exodus from Egypt after generations of slavery, the drinking of four glasses of wine.

What makes this yeshiva, or Jewish seminary, untypical is the students themselves, from families that are Sephardic, or originally from Arab countries, and dressed in white shirts, black trousers and black velvet kippas for their lessons in maths, English and Bible studies. All are drop-outs from other more conventional yeshivas in the town. Some had behavioural problems; some come from broken homes; all felt out of place in what they saw as the stifling atmosphere of religiosity and scholarship in those institutions.

A stern sign in Hebrew on the classroom wall warns that "It is forbidden to talk at the hours of prayer and when reading the Torah". But it's easy to see that Rabbi Mazuz wants his lessons to be fun as well as instructive. When a student's mobile phone rings, he gets up to go outside and take his call without rebuke from the rabbi.

Eliyahiv Levy, 16, explains: "(a) I feel the people here are more close to me, and (b) I feel more free and I feel good about coming here to study." Tal Or, also 16, says: "This place basically keeps me here and stops me becoming a thief." One student says he wants to be a "taxi driver or a pilot" when he finishes his education. Another says he wants to join the army.

This last aspiration comes as a surprise, because the yeshiva is supported by the Sephardic ultra-orthodox party Shas whose religious students are normally educated – to the intense irritation of many secular Israelis – not to join the army and are officially exempt from compulsory military service on the grounds that study of the Torah is their vocation.

But as we walk round the corner to another Shas-backed social project, a local kindergarten for children from poor immigrant families from Ethiopia, Yehuda Madizada, one of three Shas members of the Beit Shemesh municipal council who himself became observant only after he had completed his own army service, says: "Look we know these boys do things they shouldn't, like smoke, or chat up girls. But Rabbi Obadia Yosef [the former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, founder and spiritual leader of Shas] wanted us to keep boys like this close to Judaism, close to religion and off the streets. And we don't have a problem if that means they join the army."

At the Yalkut Yosef kindergarten (named after Rabbi Obadia) a class of Ethiopian five-year-olds are lustily singing psalms in Hebrew, to traditional but catchy, fast paced tunes, in front of a big painting of equally happy children at a bumper picnic, its texts a reminder of blessings that those enjoying themselves should give for what they are eating.

The 30 children of the brightly decorated kindergarten, with its two professional teachers, come from culturally as well as economically impoverished backgrounds. The children get free breakfasts and lunches every day, learn the basics of reading and writing, and according to Esther Abutbul, the rabbi's wife who helps to run it, "like it so much they don't want to go home at the end of the day." She says that often the fathers drink while the mothers work 12 hours a day and that one of the tasks is to bring the parents in once a week for classes in subjects like basic science. "These are children who come here not knowing how to listen to a teacher or ask questions. We are preparing them for a normal education."

Both the yeshiva and the kindergarten are financed by the municipality, by Shas's educational network El Hamayan, itself partially funded by state subsidies, and by private donations. And both are well organised responses to a real social need which is not being met directly by the state. But they are also both reminders of how Shas's political support – and therefore its power – is rooted in grass roots social action in the Sephardic communities – not all of them religious – which it serves. As Mr Madizada says, Shas is seeking to bring Ethiopians into its fold in Beit Shyemesh just as its Asheknazy ultra-orthodox equivalent United Torah Judaism "is trying to bring in the Russians".

The way that power – magnified by a pure proportional system which allows small parties to punch above their weight – is being wielded by Shas inside Ehud Olmert's government has now become a hot topic in Israeli politics. For Shas, whose 11 Knesset members are in the coalition, has projected itself as the main brake on Mr Olmert's stated aspirations to negotiate the outlines of a two-state agreement with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Having threatened to walk out of the government if the negotiators so much as discussed the future of Jerusalem – the division of which into two capitals is a sine qua non of such an agreement – the Shas leader Eli Yishai has claimed credit for the decision to build more than 300 new homes in the West Bank settlement of Givat Zeev. This has not only infuriated moderate Palestinians who thought that settlement building would be frozen in accordance with the internationally agreed road map, but has drawn a sharp rebuke from the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

It wasn't always quite like this. In the 90s, Rabbi Obadia Yosef – who remains the party's ultimate authority on major policy issues – memorably decreed that the saving of life mattered more than territory. A decade and half later, according to a savage critique by the Haaretz commentator Nehemia Strasler last week, "Shas passes Likud on the right". Mr Strasler, accusing Mr Yishai of becoming "an expert at [political] extortion", made an eloquent if defiantly secular case against modern Shas on issues minor as well as major. It had used its political leverage to stymie attempts to lengthen daylight saving time-at high cost to Israel's economy-to make the Yom Kippur fast "easier". It had recently secured from Mr Olmert an extra £64m as a "political gift to fund its yeshiva students". And whereas it had once been "modest" about military matters, in deference to the fact that the religious young men it supports do not do army service – it had now called for a full-scale military invasion of Gaza as well as also threatening to walk out if there are even indirect negotiations with Hamas.

Mr Strasler did not mention the recent declaration – equally remarkable in the eyes of many secular Israelis – by one of Shas's most prominent Knesset members, Shlomo Benizri, that recent mild earthquakes in the Middle East were caused by Israel's permissiveness towards gays. Unfazed by the fuss caused by his remark – which anyway he must have anticipated – Mr Benizri, himself a rabbi, stood firmly this week by his reference to the third-century Jerusalem Talmud which does indeed cite "sodomy" as one of several reasons for earthquakes. He insists that "I am not proposing to lock up homosexuals or send them to gaol for what they do at home", he explained. Instead he is against the Israeli state – which recently approved adoption by gap couples – legitimising "public acts" by homosexuals.

If nothing else this is in line with Mr Benizri's vigilance about what he worries is an increasingly secular Israeli society. Mr Benizri, who was indicted in 2006 on corruption charges which he vehemently denies, agrees, however that Shas sees no problem in advocating military action "even though we do not educate our sons to be in the army". Himself a former army commander before he became ultra-orthodox, he says that as a participant in government, Shas has the right to talk about any of the big issues of the day.

That these are decided by Rabbi Obadia and a small group of Torah sages – as opposed to lesser matters "on which we make our own professional judgement" – is in his view entirely natural. Yes, the Rabbi in the past had not ruled out the concession of territory for peace. But Mahmoud Abbas had shown "he does not control his people" and in the mean time Jewish building should continue in Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement blocs "for Israel's security".

As so often in politics, Shas has a less harsh and rhetorical face at local rather than national level, at least in Beit Shemesh. Mr Madizada takes pride in the fact that Shas co-operates with all the other parties in a coalition which leaves a single Labour member in opposition. Saying it is not as religiously extreme as UTJ however, he adds: "That's why people like Shas more. It is easier for non-religious people to deal with us."

Even nationally, Shas is certainly more pragmatic on some religious issues than UTJ. To take a single example, Shas has accepted the compromise with Zionist agriculture that the seven yearly edict against use of the land does not have to be applied super-literally.

But then exercising leverage in government is very much part of what Shas is about. Which leaves the question of why Mr Olmert is so keen to appease Shas, especially when he could at least offset part of their strength by trying to bring into the coalition the five Knesset members of the leftist Meretz, who genuinely support the "painful concessions" Mr Olmert insists he is ready to make in the talks with Mr Abbas. Mr Olmert would only say last night that Meretz will support peace moves whether in or out of the coalition.

But Danny Ben Simon, another Haaretz journalist who has written a book about Shas, says Mr Olmert's dogged preparedness to accommodate the party is in fact a symbol of the "political weakness of the government" in a context in which "nothing is happening". The party has "changed radically" since the 1990s and that while retaining its formidable ability to strengthen its electoral base by using its governmental leverage to "attend to the daily needs of its disciples" has moved from "a social to a political face".

The hawkish former defence minister Moshe Arens was recently even harsher declaring: "Shas knows nothing will come of the negotiations with Abbas. Olmert also knows that nothing will come of them but in the mean time is keeping his coalition together."

Meanwhile back at the Beit Shemesh nursery Mr Madizada insists that voting support is a "result and not a goal" of welfare activities. But as Mrs Abutbul looks for something to write a note on, the piece of paper at hand happens to be a Shas voting slip, of the kind every party distributes to its supporters at election time. It is a small but symbolic reminder of its efficiency at mobilising the grassroots to increase its influence – an influence currently making the faltering efforts to negotiate any kind of an agreement with Mr Abbas even more difficult than they already are.