Haredi political rally in Bnei Brak, March 11, 2015.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
No one can draw the crowds quite like the haredim can. Wednesday’s mass rally, attended by tens of thousands of haredi men and women, was indeed an impressive spectacle, to which the faithful members of the community flocked at the instructions of their rabbis to hear their exhortations commanding them to vote for United Torah Judaism on Election Day.
And although the haredi leadership showed once again that its ability to rally the community to arms is unparalleled, there is a note of urgency and distress that was present in the previous election in 2013, when no mass rally was called like the one witnessed this week in Bnei Brak.
The source of this urgency is the deep split in the non-hassidic haredi community that has developed since 2012 and the death of the then-leader of the sector, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.
It was the 102-year old Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman who inherited the mantle of leadership from Elyashiv, but Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, 84, and his loyalists never reconciled themselves to the former’s position and have waged a political insurgency ever since.
In the 2013 general election, Auerbach’s followers, known as the Jerusalem Faction, demanded that the Degel Hatorah party, representing the non-hassidic haredi community within UTJ, place on its electoral list a candidate from Auerbach’s camp.
Shteinman and the Degel leadership steadfastly refused, but a last-minute deal was agreed upon whereby UTJ would consult with Auerbach on the issue of haredi conscription, Auerbach’s premier concern, and in return the Jerusalem Faction and its followers would vote for UTJ in the election.
This time around, such an agreement is almost impossible.
Divisions within the two groups are fierce and the radical Jerusalem Faction and its community complain of being persecuted within the larger haredi sector due to their political allegiance.
But the rebel group is fully aware of its electoral power and numeric strength, which could number as many as 40,000 people, representing if not an entire Knesset seat’s worth of eligible voters then a figure approaching it.
In 2014, the Jerusalem Faction ran for election with the new Bnei Torah party it has set up, and won seats in local municipal councils in Jerusalem, Modi’in Illit and Bnei Brak, while seriously damaging the campaign of the Degel-backed Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Leon who lost out to Nir Barkat.
On Sunday night, Auerbach and his Jerusalem Faction intend to stage a mass rally of their own at the Jerusalem Payis Arena where the radical rabbi is expected to instruct his supporters not to vote for UTJ.
Senior officials in Bnei Torah have already said that the ongoing exclusion of the faction from Knesset representation in UTJ means it has no interest in endorsing the party in the election.
Although Auerbach will not be able to muster the numbers that Degel achieved in Bnei Brak, it will still represent a dramatic and defiant show of strength to the mainstream haredi leadership and its efforts to sideline the Jerusalem Faction.
As for Degel and UTJ, they know that in order to preserve their admirable achievement in taking seven Knesset seats in the 2013 elections for the first time ever, it will take a titanic effort in next week’s ballot, in light of Auerbach’s likely instructions not to vote for the mainstream haredi party.
It is because of these concerns, and the polls frequently showing UTJ at six seats, that Degel issued its rallying cry on Wednesday to gather the community together.
And it is for this reason that the rhetoric, always shrill, was ratcheted up even further, with the various rabbis and MKs warning of the culpability that would rest on the heads of those who fail to turn out and vote UTJ this Tuesday.