Religious Affairs: The haredi house at war

The rift in the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox political establishment seems to be more about ego than ideology.

Meir Porush 248-88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
Meir Porush 248-88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
The Ashkenazi haredi political establishment is undergoing a major shakeup. Normally a bastion of stability and unity, haredi politics has abruptly been engulfed in a period of uncertainty and fluctuation. Internecine violence is the most obvious sign that the once cohesive haredi political leadership is in turmoil. Last Shabbat, haredi men shoved and threw kugel at MK Ya'acov Litzman, the most powerful politician in Agudat Yisrael, when he showed up at a family celebration in a hall belonging to the Slonim hassidic sect. Meanwhile, Israel "Srulik" Porush, son of MK Meir Porush, who heads the Shlomei Emunim faction in Agudat Yisrael, was knocked to the ground and beaten this week. Perhaps in haredi enclaves, moderate violence - such as fisticuffs and food-throwing - is more common than in secular circles. After all, friends and enemies live in close physical proximity. There are plenty of opportunities to strike out at one's foe. Also, strong religious convictions and loyalties breed righteous indignation that can spark violence. Finally, in haredi circles there appears to be little fear that pushing, shoving and fistfights will deteriorate into shootings or stabbings. Nevertheless, the recent violence is uncommon. And it reflects a major rift between two major groups making up Agudat Yisrael. On one side is Shlomei Emunei Yisrael, headed by Porush, which is made up of a patchwork of small-to-medium-size hassidic sects usually named after the East European towns where they were founded. Some of the sects represented by Porush include Arloi, Slonim, Karlin-Stolin, Seret-Viznitz, Sadigora, Belz and Boston, one of the few hassidic groups named after an American city. Pitted against Porush's Shlomei Emunei is the Gerer hassidic sect, the country's largest. Until the recent confrontation, Gur, under the aggressive leadership of Rabbi Ya'acov Aryeh Alter, effectively controlled Agudat Yisrael. Now Shlomei Emunei and Gur are waging a power struggle. The groups clashed in the Jerusalem mayoral race. In a brazen move that undermined haredi unity, Alter refrained from supporting Porush, the only haredi candidate, in the election. There are contradicting accounts on whether or not Alter ordered his hassidim to vote for Barkat. From an analysis of election booths located in areas heavily populated by Gerer hassidim, it appears that many did. There are also eyewitness accounts of Gerrer hassidim openly campaigning against Porush, shouting slogans such as: "Save Jerusalem from the Taliban." "They broke all the rules in the book," said a Porush aide this week. "Things will never be the same again. This is World War III." NUMEROUS POLITICAL scenarios are in the offing. One possibility is that Porush will attempt to create his own independent list. Agudat Yisrael is controlled by Gur, claim Shlomei Emunei sources. Other voices, other rebbes, are not being heard enough, they say. Porush has already taken steps to set up a daily newspaper that would compete with the Gur-controlled Hamodia. During the Jerusalem mayoral elections, Hamodia ignored Porush's campaign. His name barely appeared in the paper. Immediately after the elections, Porush's followers launched an anti-Hamodia campaign, calling on readers to cancel subscriptions and sign up to receive the new newspaper. Yanki Berger, a Porush supporter who is organizing the newspaper initiative, said this week that he has already signed up over 4,000 potential subscribers. Two decades ago, Yated Ne'eman, the only haredi daily that competes with Hamodia, was established. Rabbi Elazar Menachem Man Shach, the undisputed spiritual and political leader of Lithuanian haredi Jewry at the time, supported the creation of Yated along with the establishment of Degel Hatorah, a political party that represents non-hassidic Ashkenazi interests. In fact, the present split is reminiscent of the 1988 elections, the last time the Ashkenazi haredi vote was split. Veteran MK Avraham Ravitz (Degel Hatorah) said that the main difference between 1988 and the present schism is the reason for dissent. "The conflict between Rabbi Shach and Aguda was essentially ideological," said Ravitz, referring to Shach's more dovish political views and the historical differences between Lithuanian and hassidic haredi Jews. "Today the split is more about ego and control." ACCORDING TO Ya'acov Eichler, a veteran haredi journalist who provides commentary on Knesset Channel 99, it is unlikely Porush will try to run on an independent list. "There is too high of a risk that an independent party would not receive the minimum votes needed," said Eichler. "Not only would Porush fail to pass the minimum threshold, he might also hurt the chances of Aguda and Degel as well." But Eichler admitted that in the present political climate nearly anything, including an independent Porush-led list, was possible. In an interview that appears this weekend with Shas mouthpiece Yom Le'Yom, Porush does not rule out the possibility of creating a new party. "I am not willing to talk about the future, and I am not expecting change... but after what happened, all of the old political conceptions are not applicable." Another option is that Shlomei Emunei and Gur would put aside their differences for the sake of political unity ahead of the national elections. According to a source in Gur, the easiest way to bring about a reconciliation would be to replace Porush and Litzman, the two politicians most identified with the conflict. "Porush can become deputy mayor of Jerusalem, while Litzman can resign as MK," said the source. This might be a satisfactory solution for Gur to be able to maintain its present control over Agudat Yisrael. And Litzman would be able to continue to control Gur from behind the scenes. But it is unclear whether Porush is ready to forfeit his Knesset seat. He made statements this week to the contrary. THE PRESENT turmoil comes after nearly two decades during which United Torah Judaism, a coalition made up of Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael, enjoyed political stability uncommon among most Israeli parties. The demographic factor has been the UTJ's strongest electoral asset. Besides perhaps Shas and some segments within the (now deceased) National Religious Party's constituency, no other political party enjoys a larger natural growth of its voter body than UTJ. Since 1992, when UTJ was created, the party's electoral strength has gradually grown from four seats (86,000 votes) to 6 seats (147,000 votes) in the 2006 elections. UTJ managed to increase its Knesset representation despite the huge influx of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, the vast majority of whom are secular. Also, the UTJ managed to significantly increase its electoral power despite the rise of Shas, which undoubtedly attracted some of UTJ's voters. Political scientist Asher Cohen of Bar-Ilan University has pointed out that the UTJ has yet to realize its full electoral potential since the sharp rise in fertility in the haredi sector began in the 1980s. For instance, in 1990, haredi elementary school students made up only 7.6 percent of the national average. In 2005, they represented 25%. Part of this rise can be attributed to the growth of Shas's educational system - Ma'ayan Hahinuch. But many are future UTJ voters. In five years these students will come of age and begin to vote. Until now, UTJ has avoided division, in part due to the real fear that if Aguda or Degel tried to run alone, they would not pass the minimum electoral threshold for entering the Knesset. Ironically, says Cohen, as the UTJ grows stronger on the back of natural population growth, the chances of a split increase.