Agudat Yisrael MK opens wounds with biting criticism of Degel, Shas

Arye Deri calls for ‘unreserved apology’ and insists political alliance will not happen.

Rabbi Meir Porush picks his ballot for the mayoral election in Jerusalem November 11, 2008. (photo credit: REUTERS/GIL COHEN MAGEN)
Rabbi Meir Porush picks his ballot for the mayoral election in Jerusalem November 11, 2008.
With the wounds to haredi political unity still fresh, Agudat Yisrael MK Meir Porush ripped off the bandages on Monday morning with a strong attack against the Shas Party and Degel Hatorah leader MK Moshe Gafni.
Speaking on the haredi radio station Kol Barama, Porush accused Gafni of destroying the Agudah-Degel alliance that forms the United Torah Judaism political party, which has run on a joint ticket for some 30 years.
During the recent municipal elections, Degel and Shas formed a pact whereby they would vote for each other’s candidates in different cities – in several cases, notably Jerusalem, to the detriment of Agudah.
In the capital, Shas and Degel backed Moshe Lion – a friend of Shas chairman Aryeh Deri who is Sephardi and from the national-religious community – and went against Agudah’s candidate Yossi Daitch, who was strongly backed by Porush.
In the second round, elements of Agudah – including from Gur, the largest hassidic community – preferred to vote for secular candidate Ofer Berkovitch in revenge for Degel’s alliance with Shas.
The elections in the majority haredi city of Elad were also a flash point, with Degel and Shas agreeing to back veteran Jerusalem municipal council member Yitzhak Findrus for mayor against Agudah’s incumbent Yisrael Porush, who happens to be Meir Porush’s son.
Degel and Shlomei Emunim – a faction within Agudah representing smaller hassidic communities with Meir Porush as the head – had previously worked out a deal where Yisrael Porush would step down as Elad mayor in favor of a Degel candidate, and in return Degel would back a candidate of Shlomei Emunim in Beit Shemesh.
Yisrael Porush eventually reneged on that deal, and Shas and Degel’s support for Findrus looked likely until a court ruling disqualified Findrus because his main residence was in Jerusalem and not Elad. Porush easily won reelection.
These divisions and the bad blood they have caused led Degel activists to actively speculate about abandoning the 30-year alliance with Agudah and join Shas for Knesset and municipal elections.
“Moshe Gafni took a very broad step and adopted a process in Elad whereby he wanted to get Elad – and next time he would give it to [Shas chairman] Arye Deri,” the elder Porush said. “But with the same passion that he has fought Agudat Yisrael, he has always said that Rabbi Shach told him that he needs to fight against the control of the eastern communities [Sephardim],” he added.
“Moshe Gafni took a step here: he dismantled UTJ in Jerusalem,” he continued, saying that unlike the previous arrangement in which Degel and Agudah would alternate as candidates for the capital’s mayor, now Degel has abandoned its hassidic partners and thrown its lot in with Shas.
“He [Gafni] has destroyed what was called United Torah Judaism and found a connection with the Sephardim in these elections,” fumed Porush on Monday.
Porush also insulted Shas and its leadership by saying that revered haredi leader and Degel founder Rabbi Elazar Menachem Man Shach said that Shas was unfit for political leadership.
Shach formed Degel in 1988, but had backed Shas in the 1984 Knesset elections, telling his community of Ashkenazi non-hassidic haredim to vote for the Sephardi haredi party.
Speaking at the Shas Knesset faction meeting, Deri strongly criticized Porush and called on him to apologize, but said that he did not think Shas and Degel could run together in future elections.
“Severe things were said today, as if Jerusalem had fallen into Sephardi hands,” said Deri, adding that Porush’s comments were “an offense” to Shas’s rabbinic leadership.
“Who do we listen to? To our master, the Rosh Yeshiva [Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Shalom Cohen],” insisted Deri, saying that Cohen’s religious leadership was just as valid as that of any other haredi rabbinic leaders, in a reference to Agudah’s Council of Torah Sages, which is dominated by Gur grand Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter.
“I don’t want to ask where the sharp and clear perspective was of those who supported Berkovitch,” Deri continued.
The Shas leader said that he “very much hopes” that Porush will apologize “without stuttering, without buts, and say that he made a mistake,” adding that he did not want to tally up “30 years of persecution that we suffered from those people.”
Deri said that a Shas-Degel political alliance in place of Agudah-Degel “is not an option” since Shas “draws votes from a broad range of communities.” He referred to Shas’s appeal to traditional religious voters, who vote for the Sephardi haredi party.
Gafni has not yet responded to Porush’s comments.