RABBI AHARON LEIB SHTEINMAN, 103, Degel Hatorah’s spiritual leader, speaks at Kibbutz Hafetz Haim on Thursday, as Rabbi Gershon Edelstein (second left), 93, and others listen..
(photo credit: JEREMY SHARON)
The haredi “Lithuanian” political party Degel Hatorah wrapped up its third convention since its founding in 1988 on Thursday after three days of deliberations on the most pressing issues it faces, including challenges to the religious status quo by the High Court of Justice and the division of political representation with its hassidic partner in UTJ, Agudat Yisrael.
The summit, held at Kibbutz Hafetz Haim, was concluded with a rare public appearance of Degel’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, 103 years old, accompanied by Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, a sprightly 93, another of the most senior haredi rabbinical leaders and a possible successor to Shteinman.
As in its last convention in December 2005, the division of political representation between Degel and Agudah was once again a central concern of the proceedings.
A longstanding agreement between the two parties has given Agudah a greater number of seats in the legislature than Degel, based on the demographics of the haredi community in the 1990s, when the two parties ran together on a joint platform under the banner of the United Torah Judaism Knesset faction.
Currently UTJ has six seats, four of which are taken by Agudah MKs and just two which are occupied by Degel MKs.
Degel has however claimed that this 60:40 ratio is no longer justified since, the party argues, the demographics have swung in favor of the non-hassidic community.
On Wednesday night, Degel MK Moshe Gafni declared that the party would conduct a census of its voters, and requested that Agudah do the same, in order to establish the facts and determine the correct political division for the next Knesset.
“The situation must be equal, our community is not prepared to accept this, and it must be changed,” Gafni declared at the opening of the convention on Tuesday night.
Benny Rabinowitz, a senior editor and journalist at Yated Ne’eman, the largest-selling haredi daily newspaper and mouthpiece for Degel, said he doubted however that the census would happen.
He nonetheless emphasized that there is strong feeling within Degel about the skewed political representation in favor of Agudah, saying that the original agreement was never meant to last forever, and that it is likely that the non-hassidic community constitutes at least 50 percent of the Ashkenazi haredi sector.
At the conclusion of the summit, rabbis Shteinman and Edelstein entered the main conference hall together and were greeted by the traditional raucous music celebrating the ultra-Orthodox world’s rabbinical leadership, after which Edelstein addressed the audience.
Some in the haredi online media immediately interpreted Edelstein’s prominent place at the conference as a signal that he has been marked out as the inheritor of the leadership mantle from Shteinman, although it has been assumed for some time that this would be the case.
Rabinowitz declined to comment, adding only that he believed such speculation to be disrespectful and born of a desire “to dig up a headline in every event.”
More broadly, Rabinowitz said that the convention had been successful in bringing together Degel’s many political representatives and activists, from municipal councils, community administrations and other party functionaries, to help coordinate party policy and how it addresses common issues it faces around the country.
He emphasized that the party now has representatives on municipal councils throughout Israel, and that they have taken responsibility not just for the local haredi community but for the broader population as well.
“Naturally, with the haredi presence in towns and cities around the country, the representatives have become involved in the general issues of municipal governance. The haredi representatives care about every Jew, secular, religious-Zionist and haredi, and Degel works across these sectors providing them with help and support,” he said.