Gathered around the floodlit enclosure at midnight, they sing that he will make peace: ya'ase shalom. The words refer to God, but as 300 worshipers thump tambourines and clap hands in the warm night, they have someone else in mind. It is Rabbi Yaakov Ifargan, who shuffles through the crowd, small and bowed, the people touching him for his blessing. Ifargan is a tzaddik, a holy man. "I will clean the people," he mutters and slings candles into a brazier until the flame rises 6 m and wax sizzles onto the dusty ground. At 3 a.m., almost four hours into this ceremony, he turns to a row of handicapped followers sweating near the fire in their wheelchairs. "Are you a believer?" the rabbi asks Gabriel Rafael, 22, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. People in the crowd raise Rafael by his arms. The young man scuffs his feet through the dirt, then collapses into his wheelchair. "I do feel stronger," he says.
In the face of such powerful belief, you have to be pretty cynical not at least to wish for a miracle. But in Israel today it's a question of the kind of miracle you're looking for. The most controversial point in Israeli domestic politics is the way the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party uses mystical faith to cast an aura of purity around its political machine. Rabbi Ifargan, 34, is the most prominent new leader in a wave of cabalistic mysticism sweeping Israel, particularly among the 60% of the population known as Mizrahis, who emigrated from North Africa and the Middle East. Though Ifargan has no official link to the Shas, the party has capitalized on that mystical faith to build the kind of political support that has brought Prime Minister Ehud Barak's government to the brink of collapse.
Shas' every move is calculated to play on Mizrahis' most basic beliefs: their faith in the power of the tzaddiks, their resentment of being discriminated against by European Jews and a knee that jerks to the right when it comes to the peace process. Shas quit the Cabinet in July because Barak wouldn't advise the party leadership of his plans for the Camp David summit with President Bill Clinton and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Barak's response was to call for a "secular revolution" that would end the Orthodox rabbis' lock on institutions like marriage. And though most observers believe Barak was just looking for political leverage, it's clear that the balance of God and power in Israel — always a subtext in political exchanges — is teetering again.
The politics of Shas taps the bitterness of many Mizrahis, economically bypassed by Israel's transformation into a high-tech powerhouse. Amid the anger there is hope that the holy men could bring serenity to the Mizrahis — and not just with their reassuring amulets. The bodies of some tzaddiks have been physically moved from their graves in Arab countries and reinterred in Israel, while in several places locals set up shrines in their backyards that have taken on the status of real tombs. The grave of Rabbi David U-Moshe lies in the remote Atlas Mountains of Morocco, but he has another tomb in the living room of a simple worker in Safed that is visited by thousands of pilgrims each year. Hebrew University anthropologist Yoram Bilu believes this shows Mizrahis finally are at home in their new country — if the place is good enough for our holy men, it's good enough for us. "It's a way of making peace," says Bilu. If that's the case, the new mystics may not be the danger to democracy and modernity that some of Israel's secular politicians make out. They may be living symbols of a people building a new spiritual home.
Shas still stokes the fires of resentment, though. The party's former leader, Aryeh Deri — a golden boy of Israeli politics — began a three-year jail term for fraud this month, and when it comes to willing miracles from holy men, Deri's supporters take the cake. The man they most want to speak out on Deri's behalf is 96-year-old Rabbi Yitzhak Kaddouri, the country's senior cabalist. His endorsement of the Mizrahi candidate for President swung that election against Nobel laureate Shimon Peres in July. In the simple room where he receives visitors, Baghdad-born Kaddouri recently sat amid a jumble of papers. The walls were peeling and stained with the smoke from the 20 cigarettes Kaddouri smokes each day. The old man's grandson leaned next to the less deaf of his ears and yelled, "Do you think there will be a miracle, and Deri will not have to go to jail?" Kaddouri only wheezed a dismissive chuckle, adjusted his fez and shakily lit up another smoke. His grandson finally despaired and rolled in a wheelchair-bound boy who hoped Kaddouri could help him walk. That's a miracle the rabbi is ready to believe in.
With reporting by Aharon Klein/Jerusalem