Aguda demands Degel repent for blow to Rebbe

Agudat Yisrael chairman Ya'acov Litzman demanded Sunday that Degel Hatorah apologize to the Gerer Rebbe, Rabbi Ya'acov Aryeh Alter, before the two haredi parties reunite. Litzman said that as long as Degel Hatorah was unrepentant Agudah would run alone in the coming elections. MK Moshe Gafni (Degel Hatorah) said he was not interested in commenting. Former MK Israel Eichler, a Belz Hassid who is aggressively pursuing a united haredi list that would include Degel Hatorah and Agudah, the two Ashkenazi parties, with Shas, the Sephardi haredi party, said it was unnecessary to form a single party. "Shas listens to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Degel has Rabbi [Yosef Shalom] Elyashiv and Agudah has its rebbes," pointed out Eichler. "Unity is the worst enemy of peace, so I am recommending running on a single list, which allows each party its own uniqueness. That way nobody has to apologize." Litzman said that "obviously peace and unity are preferred, but Agudah has no problem obtaining the minimum amount of votes needed to earn seats in the next Knesset." Litzman hinted that if Degel Hatorah ran alone it might not manage to muster the votes needed to enter the Knesset. Thus, warned Litzman, a rapprochement was in Degel Hatorah's best interests. However, Gafni said that Degel could gain the votes needed for three mandates, the minimum required of a party. "The mayor of Jerusalem is Degel; so is the mayor of Modi'in Ilit and other major haredi towns," Gafni said. "It is misleading to look at how many MKs we have right now (two) because we reached an agreement with Belz's Israel Eichler to allow him to enter the Knesset on our behalf." He also said that Degel had not ruled out the possibility of running on a united list with Shas. However, negotiations were in beginning stages. Eichler said that the main obstacle preventing Shas from joining Degel and Agudah in a united list was the perception in Shas that Sephardi constituents would be turned off by the Ashkenazi parties. "I told Shas that Sephardim without ties to Jewish tradition will be attracted to that charismatic Moroccan [Amir Peretz] anyway," he said. "If they join Degel and Agudah they will belong to a party with 16 MKs." Until January of this year the Hassidic Agudat Yisrael and the Lithuanian Degel Hatorah cooperated in a single list called United Torah Judaism. However, the two parties split over a political dispute over the coalition agreement negotiated between UTJ and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government. Agudat Yisrael's three MKs were ordered by the Gerer Rebbe to join the coalition government and accept key positions. Ya'acov Litzman received the chairmanship of the Finance Committee, which gives him influence over of the government's economic agenda, and Shmuel Halpert became deputy minister of transportation. However, Degel Hatorah's two MKs insisted on joining conditionally, without accepting positions for three months. Degel Hatorah wanted to make sure funding for haredi education and improvements in religious services could be obtained before it accepted positions. Degel Hatorah ignored the Gerer Rebbe's orders and attempted to force Agudah to give up their positions. But Litzman and Halpert refused to acquiesce and Degel decided to break with Agudah. The rift rekindles historic animosity between Lithuanians or "Misnagdim" and their hassidic counterparts dating back to the 1700's. Lithuanian Jews scorned hassidim for the emphasis on simple piety as opposed to Torah scholarship and their lax adherence to Jewish law, especially regarding prayer times. One Degel functionary commented on Litzman's complaint: "Between you and me how can anyone compare the Gerer Rebbe to Rabbi Elyashiv?" In response, Litzman railed that "there is no feeling of mutual respect between us. "Degel does not accept the principle that there are different approaches within Judaism, each one as legitimate as the other. Degel Hatorah's supreme spiritual leader (gedol hador) is Rabbi [Yosef Shalom] Elyashiv; ours is the Gerer Rebbe."