Legend has it that in the summer of 1914, the students at his yeshiva went to ask Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik what they should do if war broke out. The great scholar brooded over the question for a while, and then replied, with utter certainty: “There won’t be a war!”
The fighting began a week later.
His students went back to Rabbi Chaim: “What happened”? they asked. He replied, “I sat and added up all the factors and came to the conclusion that for the tsar it wasn’t a good idea to declare war. What can I do if I left out that the tsar is a fool?”
In recent weeks, a significant drama had been unfolding in the world of ultra-Orthodox politics, which is now on hiatus due to the agreement between the two Ashkenazi parties to run together: the home party of the “Lithuanians” and the hassidim, UTJ, was teetering on the edge of dissolution.
For the last 30 years, the Lithuanians (in the Degel Hatorah faction) and the hassidim (in the Agudat Yisrael faction) have been running for the Knesset as a joint list – United Torah Judaism. It has always been a marriage of convenience, with no love lost between the partners. But after the electoral threshold was raised to the current level (3.25%), the union was thought to be a fait accompli, a Catholic marriage if you will. For if one of the parties split off, it would run the risk of failing to clear the threshold – or even keeping both groups from doing so, leaving the ultra-Orthodox shut out of the Knesset.
Nevertheless, the internal ultra-Orthodox saber-rattling and battle cries in recent years are growing louder. The official reason for the latest dispute was of course strictly ideological – a war over the proper model of “religiously pure” education.
On the one side are the Belzer Hassidim, who have signed an agreement with the Education Ministry according to which its elementary schools (talmudei Torah) will include core subjects (English and arithmetic) in the curriculum, and thus be entitled to increased State funding.
On the other side, the Lithuanians are fiercely protesting this breaking of the ranks in the ultra-Orthodox battle against the core curriculum. But in reality, the contention was about state funding.
The Belzers were willing to entertain a compromise under which, in certain circumstances, their schools would become part of the independent system controlled by the Lithuanians and enjoy a significantly larger slice of the pie of state funding for ultra-Orthodox education. The leader of the Lithuanians went so far as to rule that “Belz will not be added to the independent system, even if that means there aren’t 61 [MKs to form a right-wing-haredi coalition].”
In addition to the official rationale, there are others, of course, which no one talks about but are an open secret in ultra-Orthodox society. One of them is the balance of power between the two groups. The current ratio, set after the two parties ran separately in the 1988 Knesset elections, gives the advantage to the hassidim.
But the last municipal elections in Jerusalem, in which, running separately, the Lithuanians won six seats on the city council and the hassidim only three, demonstrated that the arrangement is outdated. The current division of seats on the United Torah Judaism list is 50-50; but, as is the case with every good compromise, both sides feel cheated.
“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future” is a line often attributed to baseball great Yogi Berra. But a quick look at the parties’ interests suggests that the end agreement was inevitable. The rivals had to find a way to backpedal in light of the reality of the electoral threshold that might leave one of the parties out of the Knesset and put the lid on the possibility of a right-wing plus ultra-Orthodox coalition.
Interesting to note that the current dissatisfaction is serious. Aside from the hard core of loyalists, many are unhappy with the politicians’ behavior. This applies in particular to the group known as the “New Haredim,” who do not receive the backing of the haredi mainstream but to date have voted faithfully for UTJ.
Was the split caused by power and prestige?
If the squabble over power and prestige had caused the two parties to go their separate ways, a chain of events, including at least one of the parties being left out of the Knesset, and perhaps the new government not including ultra-Orthodox representatives, would have repercussions on the next time around. The disappointed voters are apt to ask themselves: if the politicians are willing to risk everything because of an internal power struggle, why should we be loyal to the party?
Moreover, had the parties run separately and neither cleared the electoral threshold, leaving them out of the Knesset, an unthinkable catastrophe would have been liable to strike the politicians of a magnitude without precedent – that is, nothing at all happens!
Yeshiva students will not be drafted. There will be no significant reduction in state budgets for ultra-Orthodox education. The sun will still shine and ultra-Orthodox society will continue more or less down the same merry path, whether or not it is represented in the Knesset.
In light of these considerations, gamblers are sure to bet their money on the parties running together for now. As for the future – are any of us smart enough to know how the tsar’s mind works?
The writer is a research assistant in the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program at the Israel Democracy Institute and a Ph.D. student in Jewish thought.