Analysis: Priorities, not ideology, divide Haredi parties

rabbi elyashiv 88 (photo credit: )
rabbi elyashiv 88
(photo credit: )
Two-page color spreads in the haredi weeklies this weekend showed the smiling faces of Rabbi Ya'acov Aryeh Alter, the Gerrer Rebbe, and Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, one of the heads of the Ponevezher Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, sitting together in Paris and London. This is not the first year that the nonagenarian Alter, head of the largest Hassidic sect in Israel, and Steinman, a senior leader of Lithuanian haredi Judaism, have globe-trotted the Diaspora spreading a message of unity and love. But haredi news editors know that the novelty has not worn off. Internecine war between the rationalist, elitist Lithuanian Talmudists and their mystical, populist, emotional Hassidic brethren, who emphasize the heart over the mind, may be history. But the tension between the two schools is an integral part of haredi consciousness. However, developments on the political scene threaten to disrupt the atmosphere of peace and brotherly love in the haredi world. United Torah Judaism, composed of the Lithuanian Degel Hatorah party and the Hassidic Agudath Yisrael, appears to be on the verge of splitting. MKs Avraham Ravitz and Moshe Gafni (Degel Hatorah), who must answer to Steinman and Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the party's other senior spiritual leader, are continuing to negotiate with Kadima about entering the coalition, while Agudah's chairman, MK Ya'acov Litzman, a Gerrer Hassid and an emissary of Alter's, has made it clear he wants to see Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government collapse. There is a certain element of urgency in the talks between Degel and Kadima: If Labor were to leave the government, Olmert would be left with a minority coalition of 59 MKs. Ravitz and Gafni would provide the prime minister with the safety net he needs. The close ties between Ravitz and Olmert, dating back more than three decades to when Olmert was a guest at Ravitz's Jerusalem home on Shabbat, have facilitated the negotiations. But Ravitz's willingness to save the government is not based solely on friendship. Ravitz sees an opportunity to take advantage of Olmert's instability to help the haredi Torah world. The Haredi Education Law would anchor in legislation funding for over 100,000 elementary school children and tens of thousands of yeshiva and kollel students. At present, the funding is dependent on the success of annual lobbying efforts. The bill would also prevent the Education Ministry from interfering in haredi schools' curricula. The problem is Agudah. The Gerrer Rebbe, who almost single-handedly decides Agudah's policies, has already declared that his party will not enter the coalition, or support it, without a major concession on child allotments. As finance minister in 2003, Binyamin Netanyahu made deep cuts - hundreds of millions of shekels - in child benefits. "If we give up on the child benefits and enter the coalition without them we lose a future chance of getting them reversed," said an Agudah source. "Kadima and others must know that child benefits are our red line." Ravitz disagrees with Agudah's reasoning. He believes that passing the Haredi Education Law justifies entering the government, or supporting it from outside, even without a concession on child allotments. But what about the ideal of unity? If Degel splits with Agudah to enter a Kadima-led coalition, won't the old ghosts of factionalism and dissent rear their ugly heads? How will Alter and Steinman keep smiling for the crowds in Europe when back home their proxies are on the verge of a split? One haredi source believes it is possible to allow Degel to support Olmert without causing a rift. "We are not talking about an ideological argument between Degel and Agudah," said the source, a former United Torah Judaism MK. "Rather, it is a matter of priorities." In comparison to the 1988 elections, when Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, came out in support of Agudah against Rabbi Elazar Menachem Man Shach's Degel, when the two parties ran on separate tickets, the present situation is exceedingly calm. Nevertheless, a lot depends on how Degel's move is interpreted by the haredi public. Ravitz and Gafni need to convince their constituents that there is no real split and that Degel's support for Olmert is purely tactical. Meanwhile, Litzman will try to prove that Degel is ruining the unity that is exemplified so well in the news photos of Alter and Steinman smiling together.