Attack on Litzman underlines deep splits within UTJ

Groups has been 'at war' since plans for Gur housing project in Jerusalem rejected by Porush ally earlier this year.

Litzman 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Litzman 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The attack on MK Ya'acov Litzman on Saturday night by a group of Slonimer Hassidim shows that the anger with the Gur community over Nir Barkat's victory in the Jerusalem mayoral race has continued past election day. The embattled Litzman, a representative of the Gur Hassidim within the haredi United Torah Judaism Party, was allegedly cursed, pushed and kicked before being pelted with kugel shortly after arriving at a family celebration being held at a Slonimer-owned hall in Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood. Litzman is seen by supporters of unsuccessful mayoral hopeful Meir Porush (UTJ) as the ringleader of infighting within the haredi community, and more specifically anti-Porush sentiment within the Gur community that they say cost Porush the election last Tuesday. The latest in a string of violent outbursts that have taken place in recent weeks between Porush supporters and Gur Hassidim, the attack on Litzman also brings to light a schism between himself and Porush, dating back years, not to mention a rise in tensions within the UTJ. Already split into two separate camps, UTJ is primarily made up of the Lithuanian Degel Hatorah and the hassidic Agudat Yisrael factions, which have had their own checkered relationship over the years. But the current Litzman-Porush rift signifies a growing strain within Agudat Yisrael itself. Composed of several groups, the hassidic half of the UTJ includes the "Central" faction of Gur Hassidim controlled by Litzman, the "United" faction of the Vishnitz Hassidim and the "Keepers of the Faith" faction of the small hassidic courts led by Porush along with his partner, Jerusalem's Deputy Mayor Yehoshua Pollack. Pollack, who heads the city's Planning and Construction Committee, refused to authorize plans Litzman presented on behalf of Gur to build on a 700-square-meter lot in the capital's Romema neighborhood earlier this year. Already at odds with Porush, Litzman and the Gur took the refusal as a declaration of war, and from that point on began actively undermining Porush's campaign for mayor. This approach took various forms over the course of intense campaigning by both candidates. There were reported cases of Gur Hassidim calling voters at 4 a.m. and pretending to be Porush canvassers, asking the rudely awakened residents to kindly vote for Porush, hoping to sway grumpy, half-awake voters into changing their minds. Other accounts had Gur Hassidim actively campaigning on behalf of Barkat, the secular victor in last week's municipal elections - walking through Jerusalem's secular and modern Orthodox neighborhoods, and warning about the strict religious policies Porush would impose if he were to be elected. That won the Gur little support among the vast majority of the capital's haredi population, giving rise to accusations that the Gur were in cahoots with a Shabbat desecrater. Porush supporters also responded, most notably when rocks and other debris were thrown at Litzman as he visited the haredi town of Elad on election day. Porush supporters also led public denunciations of the Gur and Litzman on haredi blogs and on-line chat forums, in which Litzman was labeled a "traitor" and taunted for "hiding away in his house." Now, in the aftermath of Barkat's election, the initial shock and disillusionment felt in the capital's haredi neighborhoods has been redirected as anger at the Gur. Disregarding the large secular vote that came out in support of Barkat, many haredi groups directly blame Litzman and the Gur for undermining their chances of continued control over the city, and the election of a secular Zionist, who breaks Shabbat, to the position coveted by a respected member of their community. Adding fuel to the fire, Barkat is rumored to have met with Litzman over a possible handover of the municipality's planning and construction portfolio to Gur representatives from UTJ. While that would signify a tangible benefit for the Gur's support of Barkat, a spokesman for Barkat told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that the story "did not sound accurate" and distanced Barkat from such a move. Regardless, after he was attacked Litzman expressed sorrow for the fact that "a wild bunch from a hassidic sect, which I have helped in the past and will continue to help, have behaved inappropriately." Litzman nevertheless praised the Slonimer rebbe. While the MK was expected to give police the names of the men who attacked him on Sunday, Jerusalem police told the Post that Litzman had yet to file an official complaint, and encouraged him to do so. The Slonimer rebbe told his disciples that he would not see any of them privately before an apology was made to Litzman.