RAMLE, Israel -- Arieh Deri, the charismatic rabbi who mobilized Israel's Sephardic ultra-Orthodox minority into a political powerhouse, began a three-year prison term for bribery yesterday amid the shouts, wails and prayers of more than 10,000 supporters who see him as a victim of a discriminatory justice system.
The parking lot outside Nitzan prison near Tel Aviv became the scene of a combination political rally, religious revival and miniriot as Jews of North African and Middle Eastern descent vented their anger at the nation's European elite and hailed Deri as the champion of a Sephardic "revolution."
"We've all been tried. We're all in prison," "Sephardi Judaism in jail," and "We won't forget; we won't forgive" read signs held above a sea of men wearing traditional black hats and white shirts.
Followers frantically reached out to touch and kiss Deri as he was led past a long police cordon into prison, bearing a gift of Torah scrolls. Several police were injured by stones as they pushed a mob of Deri supporters away from the prison barricades.
Addressing the crowd, Deri said he was going to jail "with a tearful eye but a happy heart."
"When we cry, 'Hear, O Israel,'" he told his followers, "no prison, no walls, no bars will separate us."
The Morocco-born Deri, 41, a protM-igM-i of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a former chief rabbi of Israel, is credited as the political brain behind the Shas party, which has grown into the country's third-most powerful political force, with 17 of 120 Knesset seats.
He was convicted last year of taking tens of thousands of dollars in bribes, beginning when he was a junior government official and continuing into his tenure as interior minister from 1988 to 1992. Several associates who paid him off were also convicted. His prison term is the harshest punishment ever meted out to a former Cabinet minister.
Deri was a dovish influence among the generally rightwing ultra-Orthodox. Assassinated former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Prime Minister Ehud Barak reached out to Shas in hopes of shoring up a pro-peace majority.
But since Deri's fall, the party's stance on the peace process has become ambivalent; Yosef recently referred to the Palestinians as "snakes."
After months of disputes with Barak over funding, power and patronage, Shas' current political leader, Eli Yishai, pulled out of the coalition as the Camp David peace talks got under way, leaving Barak's government close to collapse.
Barak has sought to pressure Shas back into the coalition by announcing what has been dubbed a "secular revolution," reducing the rabbinate's authority over Israeli life.
Yesterday, he took the first step to dismantle the religious affairs ministry, although Justice Minister Yossi Beilin said the move had nothing to do with Shas.
But the success of Barak's tactics seemed uncertain, given the bitter mood against the secular establishment that prevailed here yesterday, barely lifted by the thumping music of singer Benny Elbaz.
Meir Assulin, 42, stood in front of a poster that showed Deri's sad-eyed, bearded face behind bars next to the face of former President Ezer Weizman, who avoided punishment after admitting that he received hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from a French businessman.
"Look what color can do," the poster read, alluding to the darker hair and olive complexion of many Sephardis compared with the fairer Ashkenazi Jews. "Weizman, $600,000, Caesaria [the posh coastal community where the former president now lives]; Deri, $60,000, Ma'asiyahu [the prison where Deri is likely to serve his term]."
"They're afraid of the power of the Sephardis. Arieh Deri could become prime minister," Assulin said. He and others complained that the courts erred in relying on a single witness against Deri, instead of the two they say are required by the Bible.
"They chased him for 10 years. You know the expression, 'The elephant labored and delivered a mouse?' They were chasing him to eliminate Shas," said Rivka Marciano, originally from Iraq, rising from her seat in the sheltered, separate women's section of the rally. "But it's not going to help them. Thanks to him, we'll count 26 mandates."
Gesturing wildly, she said, "The people love him. They will follow him through water and fire."
A 21-year-old who gave his name only as Boaz showed up outside the prison wearing striped pajamas, resembling a jail uniform, pinned with two yellow stars of David, such as Jews were required to wear under the Nazis. On one star was written, "Sephardi revolution," and on the other, "Racist state."
Deri is expected to serve only two years in prison, with time off for good behavior, but is barred from holding a Cabinet post for another 10 years after that. But Shas leaders and followers predicted he will eventually emerge as a stronger force.
Speaking to the crowd, Rabbi Yosef compared Deri to the biblical Yosef, who after 10 years in the Pharaoh's prisons became a leader of the Jews and effective ruler of Egypt.