The political discontent within the haredi community – felt since the announcement of elections earlier this month – refuses to die down, with a rebel breakaway group threatening to challenge United Torah Judaism for the traditional haredi vote.

Tensions have surrounded the decision by the Degel Hatorah nonhassidic political faction of UTJ not to include Menahem Carmel – a rabbi, businessman and former UTJ Knesset candidate – on its electoral list for the coming elections.

Carmel was excluded because of his loyalty to Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, a rival to the acknowledged spiritual head of the haredi world Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, who inherited the leadership mantle following the death of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv in July.

Because of this dispute, Auerbach’s supporters, based in Jerusalem, registered a new political party last week, named Netzah, and promised to compete with UTJ for the haredi vote.

“We are asking for the rights we have had up until now,” said Yishayhu Wein, editor at the new haredi daily newspaper HaPeles, established by supporters of Auerbach earlier this year.

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“Rabbi Elyashiv placed Carmel on the number three spot for Degel Hatorah and it’s not legitimate to change this; it’s a stab in the back for the followers of Rabbi Elyashiv,” he told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.

Negotiations between the two sides have reportedly taken place, although Degel Hatorah officials have denied the party has entered into any discussions with the Jerusalem faction.

“If we don’t get what we want, then we have no problem running on an alternate list,” Wein said, adding that they were open to discussions.

In all likelihood, Netzah would not pass the electoral threshold of three Knesset seats. However any diversion of haredi votes away from UTJ could cost the party a seat in the Knesset.

Degel Hatorah officials continue to downplay the significance of the Jerusalem faction’s discontent, saying that the registration of the new party is merely a threat to extort the Degel Hatorah leadership into compromise.

“We are going forward in a serious way,” said Wein in response to this claim. “Anyone who thinks we’re just posturing will change their opinion come January 22.”

Wein said it was unclear whether or not Carmel will officially join Netzah and run on its party list, although he did not rule out the possibility.

A Degel Hatorah source said that the Jerusalem faction would be blamed if UTJ lost a seat, especially at a sensitive time for the haredi community, given its battle to preserve military service exemptions for yeshiva students and other issues crucial to the haredi world.

The dispute between the Shteinman and Auerbach camps runs deeper than politics however – a point emphasized by Wein.

Auerbach’s camp, referred to as the Jerusalem faction, sees itself as the true successor to the legacy of Degel Hatorah founder Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach, the trailblazing firebrand leader of nonhassidic haredi Jewry in the 1980s and 1990s, until his death in 2001.

Shach was a fierce opponent to haredi participation in secular society, especially with regards army service and secular education, a line that Elyashiv adopted.

Auerbach, the closest of the next generation of rabbinical leaders to Elyashiv, has similarly taken up this ultra-conservative path, and is supported by like-minded members of the haredi community.

Shteinman, based in Bnei Brak, nevertheless managed to outmaneuver Auerbach during the power struggle fought between the two after Elyashiv’s death, due to the backing of more of the senior haredi rabbinical leadership and wider popular support from the ultra-Orthodox public.

Shteinman is seen as more pragmatic – relatively speaking – than Auerbach, and in the past gave tacit support for the establishment of the haredi IDF battalion Netzah Yehuda.

He is still nevertheless deeply conservative, and has expressed strong opposition to a broad draft of yeshiva students into the IDF, as well as to secular education.

Speaking with the Post, haredi journalist Yisroel Cohen said that the outcome of the current dispute is hard to predict, comparing the standoff to a poker game.

“It’s going to come down to who blinks first,” says Cohen.

Auerbach’s public support is not as small as the Degel Hatorah establishment makes out, but despite their numbers they are unlikely to “go to war” and vote against United Torah Judaism at this stage.

The longer the stalemate continues, however, the more promises to run the Jerusalem faction is likely to make – and the harder it will be for them to backtrack, Cohen added.

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