Haredi parties in Israeli politics

Tension between the hassidim and the Litvaks led to their splintering into two separate lists, until they once again joined forces in 1992

Shas leader Arye Deri (right) and UTJ leader Ya'acov Litzman (far left) attend a meeting in Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Shas leader Arye Deri (right) and UTJ leader Ya'acov Litzman (far left) attend a meeting in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
United Torah Judaism (UTJ) is a coalition of two ultra-Orthodox political parties: Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah. Agudat Yisrael is a veteran party that has been led for generations by haredi rabbis and their followers, especially from the Gur, Belz and Lubavitch communities. In the past, Agudat Yisrael included the non-hassidic Lithuanian (Litvak) community, too.
Tension between the hassidim and the Litvaks led to their splintering into two separate lists, until they once again joined forces in 1992, when they formed UTJ in an effort to garner more Knesset seats. Decades ago, Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach, an extremely prominent figure in the haredi world, was the inspiration behind the creation of the Shas movement, whose main focus was helping Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews. When Shas grew stronger, UTJ was created as a joint list including both the Lithuanian Degel Hatorah and the hassidic Agudat Yisrael.
These two parties – Shas and UTJ – have always been focused almost exclusively on the interests of the haredi community alone, such as maintaining a traditional haredi lifestyle; subsidies for yeshivas; preserving a separate public-school system; exemptions from service in the IDF; and subsidies for large families. All of these issues have remained at the forefront of both of these parties, whereas issues such as Israel’s borders, settlements and annexations were never considered important when it came to voting in the Knesset.
In terms of current Israeli political discourse, the haredi parties were never considered right-wing. Agudat Yisrael was a loyal member of the Labor Party coalition in a number of governments. Under the leadership of Arye Deri and the inspiration of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas collaborated in 1990 with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, may they rest in peace, in a dirty trick – dubbed as the targil hamasriach, literally the “stinking maneuver” – in which prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was pressured to submit to US Secretary of State James Baker’s Five-Point Plan and agree to hold negotiations with the Palestinians under much more conciliatory terms. In other words, not only was Shas not a right-wing party with respect to settlements, but it clearly favored Rabbi Ovadia’s ruling that saving lives was far more important than land and settlements.
In all of its various formats, Agudat Yisrael has always retained moderate stances on political and security issues. The fact that the haredi parties are currently counted in Israel’s right-wing bloc alongside Netanyahu’s fanatical gang of supporters is purely an artificial concoction that could disintegrate at any moment. It is a mistake to automatically assume that a secular party such as the Blue and White Party, led by Gantz and Lapid, would not join forces with a haredi party.
IN 1993, I WAS ELECTED mayor of Jerusalem, in part due to the support from the haredi community. The leaders of each haredi circle abandoned their historical support of former mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek, not because of any of his political stances, but because of his openness and tolerance towards the Mormon community in Jerusalem, including his decision to allocate prominent real estate on Mount Scopus overlooking the Mount of Olives to them.
It was general knowledge that the Mormons were actively carrying out missionary activity, and their dominant presence near some of Judaism’s holiest sites angered the haredi leaders, especially the grand rabbi (“admor”) from Gur, who instructed their followers to vote for me instead, in an effort to bring about Kollek’s defeat. Shas, on the other hand, continued to support the Labor Party and Teddy Kollek. After the election, however, Shas happily joined the municipal coalition that I formed.
The haredi parties didn’t demand that we construct Jewish neighborhoods over the Green Line in east Jerusalem, and neither did they spout any of the nationalistic rhetoric that I myself engaged in during my early days in politics. They were focused solely on protecting their traditional way of life, their neighborhoods and the status quo. They never supported any right-wing ideals, and their leaders never got caught up in the raging rhetoric that the rest of the country followed so closely.
Furthermore, from my first day as Jerusalem’s mayor, I pledged that cinemas, shops, cafés and restaurants would continue to operate on Shabbat during my tenure. In fact, while I was mayor, Bar-Ilan Street, a main artery that cuts through a heavily haredi part of Jerusalem, was opened to traffic on Shabbat. Granted, this took place following a ruling by Israel Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, but calm returned to the city just a short time afterwards, and nowadays it’s extremely rare to hear about any demonstrations, riots or stone throwing in connection with Bar-Ilan Street.
When I was the mayor of Jerusalem, the haredi parties were part of the coalition, and I respected the issues that were important to their communities in our city, while maintaining a fair and equitable balance with the interests of the secular residents. I, too, lived an entirely secular lifestyle. I attended soccer games at Teddy Stadium on Saturdays and artistic performances involving female and male actors and singers. No one called for the cancellation of the partnership between the city’s haredi and secular leaders.
If we are patient and act wisely, it is possible to work together with the leaders of the haredi parties to create a joint platform based on compromise. National service needs to be mandatory for all girls and boys, but they can carry this out in their own communities if they so desire. Public transportation should be available on Shabbat in areas that do not cross through haredi neighborhoods. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate needs to reorganized, this time without being controlled by haredim. Stores will be open on Shabbat in city centers, not just in outlying areas. Yeshivas will be allocated funding according to the number of students learning there, and will teach computers, math, languages and literature, in addition to Torah and Gemara.
Some may think this list is disconnected from reality, but I believe otherwise. There will not be a fourth round of elections, and so we will soon have before us a new opportunity for the haredi parties to cooperate with other parties and with individuals who are their natural partners. The State of Israel will finally be able to deal with problems in the welfare, health and education systems; the unbearable congestion on Israel’s roads; and form a new relationship with the haredi sector, as well as members of the Reform and Conservative communities and our Arab residents.
The time has come to provide security for all of Israel’s citizens, instead of just repeating useless slogans, and to find the courage to achieve the greatest challenge of all: going back to talking with our Palestinians neighbors.
It is not only possible to carry out all of these tasks – it is absolutely essential.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.