The Sephardic religious party was established in 1984 to counter a sense of social discrimination among Sephardic (Middle Eastern descent) religious Jews vis-a-vis Ashkenazis (European descent.)
The party draws its power and appeal largely thanks to its public adhering to the Sephardic high rabbinical council. For the first few years after its inception, Shas' spiritual leader was Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Shach. In 1990, following political differences between him and the party's other prominent religious figure, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Shach stepped down as party spiritual leader, and Rabbi Yosef was named spiritual leader in his place. Rabbi Shach died in 2001.
Since its formation, the party's strength kept on growing, and in the 1999 general elections it won 17 Knesset seats, an achievement that to a large extent changed the political balance of power in Israel.
The party's most predominant political leader was Aryeh Deri, a one-time interior minister, who was named head of Shas in 1990. Deri was indicted for fraud, embezzlement and breach of trust in 1994, and was sentenced to four years in prison in 1999. He stepped down as the party's political leader in 1993; Eli Yishai was named party leader in his place.
The Deri affair sparked a bitter rivalry between his supporters and those of Eli Yishai, the feud led to a decline in the party's strength: In 2003 it won 11 seats in the Knesset and was left out of the coalition for the first time since the 80s.
Shas was able to somewhat recuperate its strength in the 2006 elections, winning 12 seats and becoming part of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima coalition.
The movement runs an independent education system in the framework of non-profit organizations, which also had a significant part in the party's rise.
- The doctrine guiding the party's platform is that Israel is the Jewish people's state and Jewish identity must be preserved when it comes to decision-making, while curbing moves that would see "a country of all its citizens" emerging.
- The party does not call for a state based on religious law, but rather, "a state with a Jewish soul" where Jewish character is preserved within state laws.
- Every diplomatic question on the agenda has answers in Jewish law. The party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, determines the party's official position.Yosef and other leading rabbis believe territorial compromise is allowed, but only when life is at stake and something is received in return.
- The party pledges to set objectives for minimizing unemployment and rewarding employers; assisting women and sectors in need of support; and to form a socioeconomic convention in order to create a common denominator for all market forces.
- The party will work to integrate Jewish tradition into the education system.