Ultra-Orthodox man take part in a rally in Bnei Brak..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The radical Bnei Torah haredi faction is likely to instruct its supporters not to vote for the mainstream haredi United Torah Judaism Party in the coming general election, a senior member of the group has said.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, Bnei Torah party chairman and Deputy Jerusalem Mayor Haim Epstein said the reasons for the expected decision include the insufficient opposition of UTJ to the law for haredi conscription passed last year, and the continued exclusion of Bnei Torah from political representation in UTJ.
According to various estimates, Bnei Torah supporters number as many 20,000 people, worth approximately half a Knesset seat, meaning that if they refrain from voting it could cost UTJ an entire mandate.
“A final decision has yet to be made but it seems that Rabbi [Shmuel] Auerbach is leaning towards issuing an instruction not to vote for UTJ,” said Epstein. “The issue of conscription to the army is the most critical problem that stands before us, yet the MKs of UTJ made all sorts of compromises and agreements when the law was created. Who gave them the right to decide how many people get to study in yeshiva and how many have to leave?” said Epstein, referencing the quotas for the number of haredi youth required to enlist every year by the new law.
“This is like the Cantonists in Russia under the tsar and cannot be accepted,” he continued, in reference to the 19th century practice in Tsarist Russia to conscript young Jewish children to the army partly as a method of converting them to Christianity.
The Bnei Torah party is a rebel faction of Degel Hatorah, the mainstream haredi party representing the non-hassidic haredi community, and does not recognize the leadership of Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the community’s acknowledged spiritual leader.
Auerbach has taken an even stronger stance on the issue of haredi conscription than Shteinman, and has instructed yeshiva students associated with his faction not to present themselves for preliminary procedures at IDF enlistment offices, even though this renders them liable to arrest by military police for draft evasion.
Shteinman and Degel have allowed yeshiva students to attend the preliminary enlistment process since under the new law mandatory conscription will only be enacted in 2017 if quotas are not met.
The split between Degel and Bnei Torah began in 2012 with the death of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. Loyalists of Shteinman and Auerbach waged a war for supremacy and leadership of the non-hassidic haredi community, which Shteinman won.
In the run-up to the general election in 2013, Bnei Torah demanded that at least one of their representatives be given an obtainable spot on the UTJ electoral list – the combined list of Degel and Agudat Yisrael, which represents the hassidic haredi community. Degel, however, refused, and Auerbach’s faction threatened to run on a separate list in the election until just a few days before Election Day, when an agreement was reached and the rabbi instructed – albeit reluctantly – his supporters to vote for UTJ. In the municipal elections the same year, however, Auerbach’s Bnei Torah party ran independently in Jerusalem, Modi’in Illit and Bnei Brak, receiving five municipal council seats in total.
Haredi critics of Auerbach and Bnei Torah have accused them of weakening haredi political power, but Epstein rejected such charges.
“This is not our problem anymore,” he said. “[Degel] decided to ignore us and persecute us so how can they now ask for our vote? Why should we give them more power?” Following the formal presentation of party electoral lists two weeks ago, the Hapeles daily newspaper associated with Bnei Torah published an editorial referencing the general election in 1973, in which the two leading rabbis of the time refused to sign the traditional declaration before elections calling for the community to vote. The editorial argued that neither Shas nor UTJ are focusing sufficiently on the issue of the law for haredi conscription and implied that there was no reason to vote for either party on Election Day.
“The critical test of the last Knesset term was the struggle against the decree of conscription, [and] a naive and appeasement- oriented approach was taken that constituted criminal negligence if not worse,” Hapeles’s editors opined. “This is the current situation... a painful reality that stings haredi Judaism and which is not likely to change in the remaining days before the election.”