Betar elections may affect national haredi politics

The battle for control of the municipality of Betar is a war between historic enemies within Orthodoxy.

Haredim 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Haredim 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
As residents of the haredi town of Betar Illit went to the ballots on Tuesday to choose their next mayor and city council, haredi politicians and activists estimated that election results, to be released late Tuesday night, would impact the balance of haredi political power on a national level. On the face of it, the battle for control of the municipality of Betar - the fastest-growing town outside the Green Line - is a war between historic enemies within Orthodoxy: the rationalist Lithuanians vs. the spiritualist Hassidim. Incumbent Mayor Yitzhak Pindrus, a high-ranking member of the Lithuanian Degel Hatorah faction of UTJ, is running against present Deputy Mayor Meir Rubinstein, a Breslav hassid backed by Boyan hassid MK Meir Porush (UTJ), who has staked his political future on Rubinstein's victory. However, a closer look reveals that the fight for control over Betar is riddled with political machinations that cross traditional lines of conflict and has nothing to do with the respective platforms of the mayoral candidates. UTJ Chairman Ya'acov Litzman, a Ger hassid, has provided behind-the-scenes backing to Pindrus the "Litvak" against Porush's candidate in an attempt to weaken Porush's standing in Agudat Yisrael, the hassidic faction within the UTJ. Porush represents a group within Agudat Yisrael called Shlomei Emunei Yisrael, which brings together over a dozen small hassidic sects. Porush hopes that a victory for his candidate in Betar - a town with a population of 27,000, of whom 12,000 are eligible to vote - will strengthen his political standing vís-a-vís Ger hassidim, who currently control Agudat Yisrael. However, if Porush's candidate loses the mayoralty bid, his political future will be uncertain. Meanwhile, Litzman might have another reason for supporting Pindrus against Rubinstein. Pindrus broke a signed agreement with Rubinstein, in which he promised not to run for a second term as mayor. Pindrus defended his actions by saying he had received specific orders from Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the supreme halachic authority of Lithuanian haredi Jewry, to run despite the agreement. According to haredi sources, Litzman might use Pindrus's agreement-breaking precedent to his advantage. According to a rotation agreement between Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah, Deputy Jerusalem Mayor Uri Maklev of Degel Hatorah is supposed to replace Agudat Yisrael's Ya'acov Cohen in the coming months. However, Litzman, pointing to Pindrus's lack of respect for signed agreements, might refuse to honor this deal, thus keeping Cohen, a Ger hassid, in the Knesset and maintaining unchallenged control over the UTJ. Meanwhile, Pindrus also has the backing of Porush's own Boyan sect, a relatively small dynasty which nevertheless has a large representation in Betar. For political reasons, Boyan Rabbi Nahum Dov Brayer did not back Porush's candidate. Viznitz Hassidim, probably the second-largest sect in Israel after Ger, are also backing Pindrus. Viznitz's decision to support Pindrus is part of an agreement between Boyan and Viznitz to join forces in Agudat Yisrael. The agreement could increase the chances that Viznitz MK Shmuel Alpert (UTJ) will continue to serve in the next Knesset, thus preventing former MK Yisrael Eichler, a Belz hassid, from returning. Rubinstein has the backing of most other hassidic sects and the Sephardi haredi Shas Party. On Monday night, Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef came to Betar and, before a crowd of about 1,000, voiced his support for Rubinstein. However, the Sephardi vote is split, since Betar's chief Sephardi rabbi, Rabbi Ya'acov Tufik, has come out in support of Pindrus. Over the past few weeks, the election campaign has upset the delicate balance in a town that has almost every imaginable hassidic sect, as well as a large Sephardi and Lithuanian population. At least one activist, Pindrus supporter Mordehai Rabinovitz, was hospitalized several weeks ago after he was beaten and his collar bone broken by pro-Rubinstein activists. However, Yehuda Davidowitz, a Rubinstein aide, said that despite the election controversy and occasional violence, the vast majority of Betar residents wanted to live in peace. "Most people are looking forward to putting this election behind them," said Davidowitz. "After all, we have to live together here."