Traffic gridlock, nightmare commutes and general infuriation have been the lot of many citizens in recent days due to the ongoing protests by a breakaway ultra-Orthodox group known as the Jerusalem Faction which has caused much misery around the country.
This renegade movement within the haredi Ashkenazi non-hassidic community was born following the death of the “leader of the generation,” Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, in 2012, which led to a leadership struggle between Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, now aged 104, and Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, 86, which was eventually won by Shteinman and his entourage.
Unhappy with this state of affairs, Auerbach and his advisers, perhaps primarily his advisers, continued to chafe against the new order, and have gradually grown further and further apart from the mainstream non-hassidic community led by Shteinman and represented in the Knesset by Degel Hatorah, part of United Torah Judaism faction in the Knesset.
Above all else, Auerbach and his Jerusalem Faction have distinguished themselves from the haredi mainstream by taking the most radical stance on the issue of haredi enlistment possible, labeling it as a life and death struggle and ordering its young men not to cooperate with the IDF whatsoever, even in order to receive the military service exemption obtained by all haredi men who seek one.
Estimates vary as to the size of the Jerusalem Faction, but it is thought to constitute approximately 10% of the Ashkenazi haredi community, and 6.5% of the overall haredi community including the Sephardi haredi community.
The split between the mainstream and the Jerusalem Faction is five years old and appears to be both intractable and irrevocable.
According to Menny Geira Schwartz, editor in chief of the B’Hadrei Haredim news site, children who have been educated in schools associated with the Jerusalem Faction face difficulties being accepted into yeshivot of the mainstream ultra-Orthodox community.
If a yeshiva student has not reported to the IDF to obtain his military service exemption, then he will be unwelcome in a mainstream yeshiva, and marrying between the two groups is also becoming rarer.
And, says Schwartz, the Jerusalem Faction is becoming more radical not only regarding enlistment but on other issues as well, opposing higher education studies, entering the workforce, and openness regarding the place of women in society.
But many within the haredi mainstream claim that the initial split by Auerbach and his coterie was not motivated by ideology, not even over the issue of enlistment, but rather by a desire to preserve their control over the haredi community which they had enjoyed while Elyashiv was still the leader.
Benny Rabinowitz, a prominent haredi journalist with ties to Degel Hatorah, points out that despite the Jerusalem Faction’s claims, no haredi yeshiva students are being drafted into the army against their will.
Instead, he describes the breakaway group as having conducted “a rebellion against the leadership of the haredi world,” and accuses them of seeking to increase hatred of the haredi community in general so as to push the community into its own more radical arms.
Further deepening the division is the fact that the Jerusalem Faction has established its own political party, Bnei Torah, which won city council seats in the haredi strongholds of Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and Modi’in Illit.
Assisted by its newspaper mouthpiece Hapeles, this new political party has naturally entrenched the communal divide and given a level of political power to the renegade faction that will make it harder to relinquish.
With the increasing severity of the Jerusalem Faction protests and its growing radicalization, adopting tactics previously witnessed only by extreme anti-Zionist elements like the Eda Haredit, the leading rabbis of the mainstream community are becoming more publicly critical of the breakaway group.
This week, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, perhaps the second-most influential haredi rabbi after Shteinman, issued an unprecedented public statement describing the Jerusalem Faction as “empty and reckless” and “like a flock without a shepherd.”
A separate letter issued by several other leading rabbis described the Jerusalem Faction protests as “a public desecration of God’s name,” one of the most serious violations of religious wrongdoing that one can invoke.
Is this then a historic split in the haredi community heralding the end of unity among its ranks? On the one hand, it would certainly appear that the era of haredi political consensus that began in the mid-1980s with Degel Hatorah founder Rabbi Menachem Eliezer Shach is indeed gone.
Shteinman’s authority has been challenged and damaged by Auerbach and the Jerusalem Faction, in a way which never happened with his predecessors.
It seems likely that his successor, who will most probably be Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, dean of the prestigious Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, will have even greater trouble establishing himself as the undisputed “leader of the generation.”
On the other hand, as Rabinowitz points out, the Jerusalem Faction remains relatively small and its radicalism and violent protests are alienating large parts of the haredi public who are worried that the name of their community is being dragged through the mud.
Degel Hatorah’s institutions, educational, societal and political, remain strong and will continue to prosper and grow, and therefore the ramifications of the split with the Jerusalem Faction will likely not be especially significant, particularly in the short and medium term.
The split between the two sides for now seem permanent and irreversible, with the Jerusalem Faction moving further and further toward a radicalism and rejectionism not typical of mainstream haredim.
With the ranks of the haredi extremists boosted, it would appear that the country should expect a concomitant boost in the kind of protests and disturbances it has witnessed over the last few days.