I am an American Reform Zionist and in this year’s World Zionist Congress elections (the polls open on January 14), I am a delegate of the Association for Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) Slate #6 about which I will write more in my next blog.

I mention my allegiance to ARZA (which among other things strongly supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) because, oddly enough, this blog is an expression of my hopes that Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Israeli party that represents hundreds of thousands of Mizrachi Jews, does well in the next Israeli election on March 17.

This endorsement coming from me is admittedly strange and seemingly contradictory to my Reform Zionist self-interest given Shas’ past hostile attitudes towards non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, women’s rights and other liberal causes. I support Shas for the sake of Israel’s democracy, long-term security, and hopes for an eventual two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is unclear at this time, however, how well Shas will do in the coming election following the death of Shas’ spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a year ago and the subsequent hostile split of Shas into two opposing factions, one led by Aryeh Deri and the other by Eli Yishai, who hate each other. I am rooting for Deri’s Shas faction because he could be a key coalition partner to Labor’s Yizhak Herzog and Tenua’s Tzipi Livni and their new “Zionist” Party.

Why am I so supportive of Deri’s Shas faction?

Two reasons:

First – 50% of Israelis are Mizrachi Jews (i.e. the word “mizrach” means east – or easterners/orientals – these refer to Jews from North African and other Middle Eastern countries). These Jews culturally have much in common with the Middle East as a whole. They understand the Arab world, speak Arabic, and if there is to be a bridge in a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, Mizrachi Jewish Israelis may be that bridge. Though Mizrachi Jews are current members of the Knesset, the judiciary and occupy other leadership roles in the Israeli government, still Israelis from European backgrounds are in control. Ari Shavit explained in his book “The Promised Land” concerning the traumas and disabilities suffered by the Mizrachi community at the hands of European Zionists when they first came to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s and, just as there is still racism in American society, so too is their prejudice against Mizrachim in Israeli society.

Second – Under the leadership of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Aryeh Deri, Shas was willing to cede land for peace in an end-of-conflict peace agreement with the Palestinians. Should Shas get enough seats in the March 17 election and be invited into a coalition led by the center-left partnership of Herzog and Livni, Shas could end up being an important partner in galvanizing the Mizrachi community of Israel in support of an eventual two-state solution.

Of course, nothing is so simple in Israeli politics, and it is uncertain whether either the Deri faction or the Yishai faction will earn enough mandates in the next Knesset to make a difference.

The 91 year-old veteran Israeli journalist Ury Avnery, who fought in the 1948 War of Independence, is a former member of the Knesset and  a prolific journalist, published this past week a piece he called “Half of Shas” in which he argued persuasively, in my view, why a strong Shas showing in the March 17 election would be good for Israel and an eventual peace deal with the Palestinians.

I receive Avnery’s articles directly from him even though they are published in a variety of journals and newspapers. I expected this article to have appeared in 972+ Magazine or in Haaretz.

But no! It appeared in the English News in the Arabic Media Internet Network (AMIN), an independent non-governmental organization serving the Palestinian community. I was intrigued and uplifted that the Palestinian community is reading Israelis like Avnery.

For your information, AMIN has offices in Ramallah, Jerusalem and Gaza, operates an annual $300,000 budget the bulk of which comes from grants. Its mission is to promote a free Palestinian media, free speech, human rights, the development of civil society, democracy and accountability. Its supporters include (in alphabetical order) the British Consulate, Canada Fund, Catholic Relief Services, the European Union, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF), Open Society Institute (OSI), United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the US Consulate.

Go to the following link to read Uri Avnery’s “Half of Shas” – http://www.amin.org/articles.php?t=ENews&id=4627