‘The haredi who made it’

Sorrow, disbelief... and a variety of other responses too: How the haredim are grappling with Uri Lupolianski’s arrest.

lupolianski 311 (photo credit: AP)
lupolianski 311
(photo credit: AP)
Shock and stupefaction are the major reactions expressed by most of the haredi representatives – whether they are municipal employees or elected – to the news of former  mayor Uri Lupolianski’s arrest on suspicion of  corruption in the Holyland project.
Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, founder and director of Zaka (Disaster Victims Identification) and campaign manager during Lupolianski’s run for office in 2003, expresses what he believes is the prevailing sentiment in the haredi community : “Who could believe that Uri would do such a thing? Lupolianski? Corruption? It’s inconceivable!” 
Media personality and Meir Panim founder Dudi Zilbershlag says even more: “Since the item broke, my heart is broken. It is not only him, the man, it is what he represented that causes the deepest damage. For us, Lupolianski was the haredi who made it, who did something successful in his life, who could stand up to the secular thanks to his achievements. And, of course, a man who has been open to Klal Yisrael [the entire Jewish people], worked for all. It is a terrible feeling to think that our local leadership has been taken to a very bad place and is corrupt. This is nothing short of a disaster!”
But not only among the haredim is the shock so intense. “Corruption and Lupolianski just don’t go together in my mind,” says city council member Meir Margalit of Meretz, not exactly a supporter of the haredi former mayor.
The news of Lupolianski’s arrest on Wednesday on suspicion of accepting bribes through the Yad Sarah charitable organization in return for approving the Holyland construction project spread through the haredi street like wildfire last week and immediately became the hot topic of the day. However, in the haredi newspapers Lupolianski’s name was not mentioned at least until the end of the week.
“First, because he is not accused by the police of taking bribes for himself but for a noble cause, Yad Sarah,” explains Meshi-Zahav. “Had he been accused of taking money into his own pocket, the haredi community would have been in a much more complicated situation. Don’t forget that Lupolianski still lives in the modest three-and-a-half-room apartment in which he raised his 12 children. But there is something else. For this community, he is accused of something connected with the secular world. It’s considered ‘state issues.’ So added to the fact that he is suspected of taking money for a just cause, what he has done is not considered such a terrible thing here.” 
AS FOR the fact that the major story of the week was hardly mentioned in most of the haredi press, according to Meshi-Zahav the issue was treated the way that media treat any embarrassing issue such as rape or murder. It is simply not mentioned.
In point of fact, the situation in the haredi press is more complex. All these newspapers function under an “ethics committee” that decides what can be published and even how things should be published in the newspaper and on which page. “We were all in a state of panic,” says Zilbershlag. “We just didn’t know what to do, how to use this information and how to publish and what.” 
The issue itself was published in some papers and totally ignored in others. But when the news of Lupolianski’s arrest reached the editing stage, it caused quite a headache to the editors and to the rabbis on the ethics committee as to how to treat it. In three of the newspapers – Yated Ne’eman, Hamodia and Hamevaser – the anxiety was focused on the moment the court would release the name of the former mayor, which at first was prohibited from being published.
 “They all prayed it would be released too late to be printed,” says a former haredi affairs correspondent. In those three newspapers, the story was not found at all. In other cases, what was finally agreed upon was to avoid printing Lupolianski’s name, although the clues were considerable. In the weekly Mishpaha, the headline was “Holyland – the haredi chapter.” Another newspaper headline read “A well-known haredi personality, famous for his charitable activities, was arrested in connection to the Holyland affair.”
Mishpaha also printed a picture of both former mayors Ehud Olmert and Lupolianski. The only two publications that dared to print the name were the Shas daily Yom Leyom and the weekly Bakehilla. “I guess that at Yom Leyom they eventually regretted that, as a few days later it was one of them [city councillor Eli Simhayoff] who was arrested. But by then, they just couldn’t withdraw and ignore him after they printed Lupolianski’s name,” adds the haredi journalist.
Simhayoff, deputy mayor and head of the finance committee during Lupolianski’s term as mayor, was also arrested on the same grounds a few days later and is still under arrest.
In any case, it is interesting to note what made the front pages of the haredi newspapers that chose not to run the major story of the week as the country tried to digest the various aspects of the Holyland affair.
The cover stories in Yated and Hamodia (the latter also published in English and French) were far from bearing any connection to the issue. The Scuds provided by Syria to Hizbullah, the offer of shelter provided by Britain to a group of Yemenite Jews, and all the natural disasters that have recently hit southern Asia received a lot of coverage. Holyland was totally absent, even on the back pages. The whole story, with names and details included, was only found on the few haredi Internet sites still operating or on some of the haredi radio stations, which are not subject to the same stringent restrictions. 
The question raised was should or shouldn’t the haredi community give support to the man among them most strongly identified with charity and honesty. “It is a terribly heavy question,” says Zilbershlag. “In his party, Degel Hatorah, it’s even worse. Some people in the haredi community criticized them for this. But after the leader of the party, Moshe Gafni, said that in his party no one has ever been summoned for any police investigation, he just couldn’t act differently. I think he was right not to give automatic support... Painful as it is, it shows social and political maturity. As for the rest of the haredi community and its press, the problem is that we are all cautious not to express support for someone who might, after all and God forbid, turn out to be guilty. We do not want to give legitimacy to such a terrible thing, but it is a very deep and painful crisis, no question about that.”
Still, there are some who suspect that Lupolianski’s involvement is more in the police’s mind than anchored in fact. “There is a strong feeling that the police are overdoing it. Why should Lupolianski be dragged out handcuffed in front of the cameras? Is he really so dangerous to society? And a few days later the same with Simhayoff. These are two men who live so modestly. How can they be accused of corruption of millions of shekels? The feeling is that if you’re a leader or an elected or high-ranking official on a local council, especially if you work on a local planning and construction committee, you must be corrupt because that’s how the system works.” says Zilbershlag.
NOT ALL the haredim employed at the municipality share Meshi-Zahav’s opinion that even if Lupolianski is guilty, his guilt might be not so serious because the money was used for a charitable organization. “Avraham” sounds embarrassed, almost angry. “I don’t think it’s ‘nothing.’ I can see there is a difference between someone who takes tainted money for a good cause and someone who takes bribes for his own needs. After all, Yad Sarah helps everyone, and if Lupolianski did take this money for the organization, then he can say that it helps all the citizens of this country who will eventually benefit from it,” he says.
“But that’s only one aspect. I am more concerned by the possibility that this could happen because our people mingle too much with secular politicians. It’s not that I am naïve enough to believe that corruption does not exist in our community, but my feeling is that in the secular community, especially in political circles, it has become something people live with, and that is causing terrible repercussions in our communities.”
Lupolianski, it is no secret, did not receive too much support from his fellow haredim during his period as mayor of Jerusalem. He was accused of all kind of things, especially in regard to allowing the opening of restaurants and pubs on Shabbat, and was regarded as an emissary who didn’t deliver the goods. “We didn’t get the funding or the buildings we needed for our education system, and too many of our children still study under terrible conditions, such as in rented apartments or shelters,” says Avraham, an educator in the haredi stream.
“I’ve been trying to get a permit to close a small part of my parking area to use as a storeroom,” says Meshi-Zahav. “I’m still waiting for the permit, and I’m not alone. Many haredim ask, ‘What did he do for us? Why did we send him there? We could have been much better off with a secular mayor.’”
But despite the tone of bravado in his words, Meshi-Zahav, like Avraham – and many others who refused to be quoted even under false names – agree on one thing: If someone like Lupolianski, who’s always been considered to be a very modest and honest person, could become involved in a corrupt situation, then nobody is immune.
“There is something valuable in the rabbis’ teachings to keep a certain distance between us and the secular world,” adds Avraham. Asked how proximity to the secular community could be a reason to become corrupt – after all, corruption is not such a rare occurrence in the haredi community – Avraham replies, “I’m not saying we don’t have our own corrupt people, it’s just that within the haredi communities the attitude and the treatment towards those who fail is different. In terms of community life, they pay a very high price – perhaps in some ways higher than sitting in prison for a few months or years.”
The relationship between the first haredi mayor of Jerusalem and his community is very complex. During his term of office, Lupolianski had to face, time and again, the harsh content of the pashkevilim (posters) on Mea She’arim’s walls, accusing him of giving in and flattering the secular or, even worse, putting their interests before haredi ones. For a while, Lupolianski was even nicknamed “the Christian” on some pashkevilim, following his attempt to reach an agreement with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews headed by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein because it was based on money donated by Christian evangelicals.
“In Mea She’arim, no one has forgiven him for [allowing] the [gay] pride parade, no one,” says a young yeshiva student encountered at the municipality building. “We sent him to represent us, and he turned out to be worse than a secular, openly anti-religious person for us.”
Asked if that meant that in the haredi community there was some cynical joy in seeing him fall now, the young man says, “No, I don’t think so, at least not openly. But there is a feeling that it is not good for us to get so close to the secular community. This is not something new, but now those who were against a haredi mayor from the start can say they were right.”
“The contact with the secular political world might indeed be a dangerous one for us,” admits Zilbershlag. “Especially since in the haredi community, the attitude towards the rule of law is somewhat shaky, and many of us feel that some politicians who were aware of that didn’t hesitate to use it for their own purpose.”
SOME HAREDI reactions are even more extreme. Y. describes himself as a “true haredi” and hints that he is a member of the radical Eda Haredit. As such, he was involved a few months ago in the riots following the arrest of the mother suspected of starving her child. In a phone conversation, Y. says it was not the haredim who initiated the riots but it was a reaction to the brutality of the police that set things off. Regarding the alleged involvement of the former mayor in the Holyland issue, he says, “To you, Lupolianski is a haredi, but we can make the distinction. He is a Zionist – we have never had any doubt about it, and so for us he is not representative of our community. But corruption is like a plague. When you get too close to secular communities where there is no obedience to our holy Torah’s commandments, it is not a surprise to see it reaching even people who seem honest.”
Asked if he could see a difference between bribes for a noble cause and someone taking public money for his own pocket, Y. says, “According to the Torah, corruption is corruption. And even for just causes, we should always be very careful about where the money comes from, even for charity.”
A prominent figure in the local haredi community, who refused to be identified, adds a particularly acute insight into the outcome of the Lupolianski and Simhayoff arrests: “Ehud Olmert loved to rub shoulders with haredim because, among other reasons, he believed it would facilitate all kinds of things for him to handle. As a result, we used to say inside haredi circles that Olmert wouldn’t fall because he made deals with us. But Lupolianski, who during all his years at the municipality as head of the planning committee and as mayor didn’t make any concessions or deals with us, would certainly fall. I know it sounds cruel, but that is exactly how we saw it in our community, and look what is happening now – Lupolianski and Simhayoff are in jail, and Olmert is still free.” 
Time will tell if Lupolianski and his former deputy, Eli Simhayoff ofShas, will be prosecuted or come out scot-free. One thing is certain:Simhayoff was always very careful not to forget who sent him to KikarSafra. Haredim from both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities whoasked for his help and support almost never left empty-handed. “He wasalways very attentive to the needs of the ordinary people, so if he [ischarged] he will have at least the support of those he helped. But thatwon’t be the case of Lupolianski who, during all his years at themunicipality, always refused to help haredim who came to ask him forhelp. For him, help and support were only through Yad Sarah,” says Y.,a former employee at the municipality.