Political crisis in haredi world grows as polls near

Degel Hatorah breakaway "Jerusalem Faction" to run with new Netzach party.

Sea of haredi men 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mike Segar)
Sea of haredi men 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mike Segar)
The divide in the non-hassidic haredi world has reached crisis point following the appointment of Bnei Brak Mayor Yaakov Asher to the No. 3 spot on the Degel Hatorah party electoral list.
The decision, taken by Degel’s Council of Torah Sages on Monday night, has angered a rebel group within the non-hassidic “Lithuanian” community known as the “Jerusalem Faction,” which declared on Wednesday that it will now definitely be running in the elections with the group’s newly established party, Netzach.
The Jerusalem Faction had been demanding that a candidate loyal to them be granted the No. 3 spot.
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Yeshayahu Wein, a senior figure in the faction, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that Netzach would be presenting its list of candidates to the electoral commission on Thursday night and, barring any last minute developments, would be contesting the coming election.
Asked whether the faction was concerned about damaging the political strength of the ultra-Orthodox community by running with a new party, Wein said the question should be addressed to the mainstream Degel Hatorah leaders.
“If they are willing to forgo the votes of the members of the haredi community loyal to [Netzach rabbinic leader] Rabbi [Shmuel] Auerbach then that’s their decision which they are responsible for,” Wein said.
He added that Auerbach was fully behind the decision for Netzach to contest the election.
There is a concern within the haredi community that the Netzach party, although not strong enough to pass the electoral threshold and enter the Knesset, could both divert a significant number of votes away from Degel Hatorah and cause a sizable number of haredi voters to simply not vote at all.
If these numbers are high enough, United Torah Judaism, the Knesset faction comprising Degel and the hassidic haredi party Agudat Yisrael, could lose a seat in the Knesset.
Wein conceded it was still possible that a compromise could be found “at the last moment” but said the offer would have to be very convincing to dissuade them from running.
Despite the posturing, it is unclear if Netzach will indeed run. There is a difference of agreement with the Jerusalem Faction itself whether to contest the coming general election or to wait for the municipal election due at the end of 2013 to strike their first political blow – in which they will have a better chance of electoral success.
Although Netzach will be presenting its electoral list on Thursday, it is possible that the party is taking this step simply to keep its options open, since Thursday is the final deadline for presenting a party list.
But the head of the mainstream “Bnei Brak Faction” and acknowledged leader of the non-hassidic haredi world, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, has refused up until now to respond in any way to the demands of the Jerusalem Faction.
According to haredi journalist Yisroel Cohen, who writes for the Kikar Hashabbat haredi news website, it is extremely unlikely that Shteinman will compromise at all at this stage bearing in mind the hardline stance he has shown thus far throughout this internecine battle.
“Asher is Rabbi Shteinman’s man and despite all their noise, they have ended up without anything at all,” Cohen said.
He added that the Jerusalem Faction’s main goal is not necessarily the third spot on the Degel list, since it is improbable that UTJ will receive the requisite number of votes to elect the third-placed Degel candidate, but instead is seeking recognition as a real and substantive movement with the Lithuanian haredi community.
A source within the Degel political party echoed this notion. Degel’s utter refusal to grant any recognition or legitimacy to the Jerusalem Faction and Netzach extends to its policy regarding public comments on the issue, in that it totally refuses to officially comment on questions about the matter.
And the very fact that Shteinman has proved so unwilling to compromise with the Jerusalem Faction is a possible indicator of the relative strength of the mainstream Degel leadership over its rivals.
According to Cohen, most voters in the haredi community would not go against the political instructions of Shteinman because of the very fact that he is the acknowledged gadol hador, the outstanding Torah scholar of the generation.
This unofficially bestowed title carries great religious weight within the haredi community, and disobeying the directives of the gadol hador would be distasteful for many members of the ultra-Orthodox public on religious and philosophical grounds.
The immediate cause of the dispute was the Jerusalem Faction’s demand that businessman and Auerbach loyalist Menahem Carmel keep the third spot on Degel’s electoral list, which he held in the last election.
But the roots of the argument are deeper and reflect the dissatisfaction of Auerbach and his supporters in the Jerusalem Faction, with his failure to gain acceptance as the new spiritual leader of the Lithuanian community following the death of former leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv back in July.
Auerbach’s loyalists see the rabbi as the true continuation of the vision and philosophy of Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach, the firebrand leader of the Lithuanian world in the 1980s and 1990s who founded Degel Hatorah and advocated an uncompromising stance against the state regarding all matters relating to the haredi community.
Despite this, the actual philosophical and political differences between the Jerusalem and Bnei Brak factions are slim, although Shteinman has proven slightly less rejectionist in the past towards the state than has Auerbach.