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Clout of Orthodox Jews Rises Despite Scandal

Thousands of excited fans pack the Tel Aviv sports stadium, cheering and waving. Yet this is no athletic event, but a mass rally of supporters of Israel's ultra-Orthodox Shas party - a movement growing in muscle by virtue of its raw voting strength, yet reeling beneath the weight of a corruption scandal so serious it could result in indictments and even bring down the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Shas was established in 1984 to represent Jews of Sephardic origin - literally meaning Spanish, but referring mostly to those from North African and Middle Eastern countries. The name Shas is actually an acronym for "Sephardic Guardians of the Torah," but the party has always been as much about empowering a disadvantaged ethnic group as it has about safeguarding religious fundamentals.

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By encouraging thousands of secular Israelis to adopt religious lifestyles - and with higher birthrates among Sephardim than among Israelis of European origin - Shas has become Israel's third-largest political party.

Some would also add one of the most powerful: Shas is rooted in neither the left- nor right-wing and is thus desperately needed by any government in order to form a coalition.

But Shas's political leaders have time and again found themselves embroiled in corruption cases that might be thought to chip away at the party's legitimacy. Among the Shas parliament members currently under investigation is party leader Aryeh Deri.

Still, Mr. Deri and Shas have retained popular support. At a recent rally billed as a memorial for 73 soldiers killed in a helicopter crash in February, Deri's devotees were as loyal as ever, shouting "Aryeh roars!"- his name means "lion" in Hebrew. A newly religious singer performed a song composed especially for Deri: "Rabbi Deri the righteous one, who brings merit to the masses. He will not stop nor cease spreading Torah for its own sake."

But it isn't only religious Sephardim who give this kind of support to Deri. Among the public he was at one time considered to be the most likely man to be Israel's first religious prime minister.

The Moroccan-born, Deri was first appointed interior minister at 29, and lauded as the brilliant protege of the Sephardim's revered Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

Today, the bond between the rabbi and Deri is still close. Deri and the Shas ministers who serve in Mr. Netanyahu's Cabinet confer with the rabbi so closely that they will leave in the middle of a crucial meeting to get instructions from Yosef on how to vote. And Yosef is such a beloved icon that he is treated with an almost papal adoration. To their voters, Yosef and Deri embody a battle against discrimination at the hands of the Israeli establishment, made up mostly of Ashkenazi Jews of European descent.

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Declaring that Sephardic rituals are more authentic than the ones developed in Europe, Yosef, through Deri's political clout, has built numerous new religious and community institutions in places where there were none. Sephardim are now the ethnic majority in Israel, but are, on average, still poorer and less educated.

Last May's election, however, boosted their presence in parliament. Shas secured 10 out of 120 Knesset seats making its support an increasingly desired commodity for coalition-building prime ministers in an era of peacemaking. Iraqi-born Yosef has shown more openness to trading land for peace with the Palestinians than any other Orthodox spiritual leader.

In the Bucharim neighborhood of Jerusalem, there are no signs of anyone losing faith in Shas, despite the current scandal. "Before Shas, we were nothing," says Malka Levy, a woman who has her hair wrapped in a modest scarf. "Maybe Deri is good and maybe he's not, but that doesn't matter and it won't change how we feel about the party. Even if he doesn't turn out to be innocent, I will still vote for Shas. They've done so much for us."

Suggestions that a powerful elite are out to get Deri because he was too "uppity" for a Sephardim are common. One journalist, baffled by the undying allegiance to him, likened it to African-American support for O.J. Simpson. If so, the gaps between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews in Israel itself might still be wider than imagined.

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