Haredi 'unity' masks internal power struggles

UTJ "paralyzed" by infighting, struggle over control of educational system; Shas losing to Lieberman.

haredi election 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
haredi election 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The Ashkenazi haredi voting constituency has never been so weakened by internal power struggles and a breakdown of rabbinical authority, haredi sources said Monday on the eve of elections. Meanwhile, Shas has been hurt by an apparent loss of votes to Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu party. After weeks of delays, most leading haredi rabbis - both Hassidic and Lithuanian - have openly called to vote for United Torah Judaism, creating a façade of unity. However, thanks to an open, independent haredi media, the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi voting public is well aware of the internal tensions lying just under the surface. As late as last Thursday it was unclear whether influential Hassidic rabbis and yeshiva heads would order the faithful to vote for UTJ or issue a more general order to vote for a party that "respects the Torah." Dudi Zilbershlag, chairman of the charitable organization Meir Panim and a consultant on haredi affairs for politicians and businesses, publicly announced last week that he would vote for Shas, the Sephardi haredi party headed by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Zilbershlag, a Seret-Viznitz hassid, reflected the feelings of tens of thousands of Ashkenazi haredim when he complained during an interview on the haredi Radio Kol Hai that the UTJ no longer represented the haredi consensus. "The party has been paralyzed by infighting with this Hassidic court waging a battle against that Hassidic court and the followers of this rabbi disregarding the opinion of that rabbi. "The haredi public does not want to be dragged into these battles," he said. "In everyday life, who makes these distinctions between Sephardim and Ashkenzim, between this Hassidic court or that one?" But after his rabbi ordered all Seret-Viznitz hassidim to vote for UTJ, Zilbershlag admitted he would listen to his rabbi. "I subordinate my opinion to my rabbi's," he said. But many haredim who in the past adhered blindly to their spiritual leaders now plan on exercising more democratic freedom. "People are fed up with being told what to do in issues that have nothing to do with Halacha," said Y., a former student at the prestigious Ponevezh Yeshiva, who is close to Rabbi Michael Lefkovitz, head of Ponevezh's school for young men. "It used to be that every few years the rabbis came out with a declaration on public policy issues. Now they do it every few months," Y. continued. "There are declarations on 'kosher' cell phones [that have no Internet capabilities or fancy ringtones], 'kosher' bus lines [that separate men and women] and political issues. People no longer take these declarations seriously." He estimated that between 10 and 15 percent of Ashkenazi haredim would vote for Shas. The most recent power struggle is over control of the haredi "independent" educational system. The Ger Hassidic sect, under the aggressive leadership of Rabbi Ya'acov Aryeh Alter, is attempting to increase its influence over the educational system, which is a source of thousands of jobs for teachers. However, the non-Hassidic Lithuanian haredim, who have enjoyed control until now, are fighting to retain their hegemony. The power struggle has pitted Alter against Lithuanian leader Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, a head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva who has been active in fundraising for the independent school system. The struggle for control over the school system, which is a source of income for thousands of families, has escalated over the past year due to the worsening economic situation. But the power struggle has also underlined the rift within the haredi community and highlighted the narrow interests of the warring camps. As a result of the infighting, the UTJ has failed to convince its constituents that it represents broader haredi interests. Another example of this internal dissent was the Jerusalem municipal elections. MK Meir Porush (UTJ), the only haredi candidate, was defeated by Nir Barkat in part due to infighting between the Ger Hassidic sect and supporters of Porush. Haredi interests in Jerusalem suffered a major setback. In contrast, Shas, navigated by the undisputed leadership of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, conveys to haredi voters a message of unity unmarred by the narrow political interests of vying camps. Although Shas may gain Ashkenazi haredi votes, it has also lost votes to Israel Beiteinu. Shas, unlike the UTJ, draws most of its support from a Sephardi constituency that is not strictly Orthodox but which has strong emotional ties to Jewish tradition. Many of these less Orthodox voters are attracted to Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman's message against Israeli Arabs. Another party that stands to gain from Ashkenazi haredi disenchantment with its political leadership is the National Union. On Monday, party chairman Ya'acov "Katzele" Katz met with Rabbi Haim Kanyevsky, a major haredi spiritual leader, at his home in Bnei Brak. Katz received a blessing from Kanyevsky. According to Katz's spokesman, Kanyevsky's grandson said that "no other party received such a warm reception." Katz's spokesman also said that the NU was interested in forming a voting bloc with the UTJ. Last week, Shas chairman Eli Yishai visited Kanyevsky.