Despite appearances, the current wave of haredi protests are not about any substantive issue but are rather reflective of an internal power struggle within the haredi community about the very nature of haredi society.
The spate of demonstrations and civil disobedience witnessed over the last few months has been orchestrated by a political splinter group known as the Jerusalem Faction which splintered off from the mainstream political grouping of “Lithuanian” non-hassidic Ashkenazi haredim, Degel Hatorah in 2012.
At that time, the head of this community Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv passed away and the head of the Jerusalem Faction Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach challenged Rabbi Ahraon Leib Shteinman for the leadership of the sector, a battle won by Shteinman.
Ever since, Auerbach and his group, thought to be approximately 10 to 15 percent of Ashkenazi haredim, have been seeking to claw their way back into a position of influence and importance within the haredi community, and regain their ability to determine the nature and direction of the sector.
After all, those involved in the Jerusalem Faction used to have the ear of the leader of the haredi world, they edited the Degel Hatorah mouthpiece newspaper Yated Neeman, MKs consulted with them, and they effectively controlled the haredi community because of their proximity to Elyashiv and his predecessor and Degel founder Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach.
Today, by contrast, they have no representation in Knesset and are unlikely to get any, they are shunned by the mainstream haredi leadership, and have diminishing influence over the haredi masses.
Most importantly, they are powerless to hold back the changes taking place in haredi society, in which more and more men are leaving the benches of the study halls, getting a higher education, joining the workforce and even going to the army.
According to Shahar Ilan, an expert and commentator on haredi society and a reporter for the Calcalist, the real struggle being waged by the Jerusalem Faction is to fight these changes in accordance with what they believe was Shach’s path, and to try and preserve the haredi community as one that studies Torah to the exclusion of everything else.
The mainstream leadership in no way encourages leaving yeshiva study, military service or employment, Torah study is still the pinnacle of achievement in haredi society, but at the same time the leadership is not really opposing these growings trends either.
It is the inability of Auerbach and his Jerusalem Faction to influence and sway haredi society towards their vision of what it should look like which is most troubling to the leadership of their camp.
But this splinter group has carved out one highly sensitive area of the haredi agenda for itself, which it emphasizes with its demonstrations, riots and civil disobedience and by which it grabs news headlines and, it hopes, relevance: military service.
Even though the current government gutted the previous government’s haredi conscription law, and even though no haredi yeshiva student is being forcibly drafted, and even though state financial support for yeshiva students is at an all time high, the Jerusalem Faction leadership pretends that there is some kind of crisis over enlistment to rally its soldiers and dominate the news agenda.
The group cannot grab headlines. stage demonstrations and cause chaos based on haredi men voluntarily choosing to go to the IDF, learning in college or university and getting a job, it would be impossible to fire up their foot-soldiers on such issues.
But they can fight the state, call the government and the police Nazis, stop traffic and cause mayhem over military enlistment, even if it is on totally false pretenses.
This fight at major highway junctions and central city thoroughfares is therefore not about enlistment at all but first and foremost an internal power struggle, as well as a desire for relevance, and a fight to influence the direction and very character of haredi society.
The timing of the current wave of protests would appear to be largely circumstantial, and is a function of the Jerusalem Faction’s instructions to yeshiva students associated with it to not even report to IDF offices for preliminary processing, in order to receive their military service exemptions, as mainstream yeshiva students do.
Anyone failing to report for preliminary processing is considered by law to be a deserter and liable to arrest by the military police.
After one yeshiva student is arrested by the military police, the leadership instructs masses of other students to protest and riot. Frequently, these students are arrested by the police during such protests for disturbing the public order, attacking police, and other misdemeanours, but are then themselves found to be deserters and placed in military detention.
The increasing number of yeshiva students who are now formally deserters plays into the Jerusalem Faction’s hands as it gives them ever increasing opportunities to take to the streets and protest.
But are these protests working, is Auerbach and the Jerusalem Faction becoming more influential because of them?
According to Yisroel Cohen, a senior journalist at the Kikar Shabbat haredi news website, most of the haredi mainstream is bring turned off the Jerusalem Faction by these pointless, violent and vitriolic demonstrations.
“Most of the mainstream haredi community thinks they are shooting themselves in the foot, distancing themselves from the sane Lithuanian community, and these people are asking themselves ‘is this our culture, did we grow up like this, do I want to be associated with this’,” says Cohen.
It is significant that the mass demonstration on Tuesday night, like others, was done in cooperation with the even more fundamentalist, anti-Zionist Eda Haredit communal organization.
The Eda has long been seen as a marginal, extremist group even within the broader haredi community, and with almost no influence over haredi society.
But by mimicking the Eda’s modus operandi and world view, the Jerusalem Faction is effectively turning itself into a carbon copy of the Eda; radical, violent, and irrelevant.
According to Cohen, until recently there have been significant numbers of people within the haredi mainstream who had sympathies with the Jerusalem Faction, but who the radical group is now losing due to its extremism.
By its very radicalism, this group is pushing itself further and further away from the mainstream, making itself less and less relevant to the average haredi person, and damaging its own ability to influence haredi society.
Unfortunately, the general Israeli public may have to suffer the consequences of this power struggle a little while longer.
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>