The bravest man in the Knesset
Amsellem holds up a mirror to Shas' leaders in which they appear to be exploiting other people's misery. They are interested in leaving the ultra-Orthodox population ignorant, poor and dependent on them.
They have said he is "from the seed of Amalek," the bitter enemy. He has been called "one of the chief Hellenists," referring to the Jews who adopted Greek culture during the Second Temple period. He was expelled from the party because of his independent views. He is unable to get his son accepted into any ultra-Orthodox yeshiva, and Shas' spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has imposed a boycott on him. The Haredi media call him "that same man," an epithet reserved for Jesus. And the head of the Knesset Guard has assigned a bodyguard to him because anyone known as Amalek is in danger of being killed, and that is certainly no joke. We are talking about the most courageous man in Israel politics, MK Chaim Amsellem.
I met him once, a few years ago, on a panel that discussed Judaism, and I immediately realized that a new kind of Haredi had emerged here - the kind I had longed for, for many years. He reminded me of the previous generation of Sephardi rabbis - those who had a pragmatic approach to life and to religious law. They were moderate and compassionate in all their ways. They wished to bring the Torah closer to the people of Israel in a pleasant manner. There was not a drop of extremism in them - not on religious issues, not about kashrut, not about the laws of the Sabbath and not about conversions to Judaism. They were moderate and ready to make concessions also on political and diplomatic issues. They did not regard the land as holy, only the human beings. They were the complete opposite of the Ashkenazi rabbis, of the Lithuanian school, whose words were harsh, whose positions were extreme, whose hatred was terrible, and who wanted nothing but arguments and disputes.
Amsellem became known to the public some two years ago, in connection with what was happening in the Jewish town of Immanuel on the West Bank. He saw how they were treating young female Sephardi students in that town - how they were humiliated and discriminated against merely because they were Sephardi - and he could not bear this disgrace. Shas leader Eli Yishai, in cowardly fashion, ordered all members of his party to keep quiet, for fear of what the Lithuanians would do. But Amsellem, at the time a Shas MK, disobeyed the orders and spoke on every radio and television station and to every newspaper about the outrageous discrimination.
After that, Amsellem revealed to the public that Yishai sends his own sons to Ashkenazi yeshivas, as do the other Shas leaders. On the one hand, they would speak publicly about "restoring the crown to its former glory" but in actual fact they were busy restoring the Lithuanian crown. Their sons study in Yiddish and don't even know the names of the Sephardi rabbis. As the biblical phrase puts it, "We were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight."
Unlike them, Amsellem genuinely wants to restore the former glory. That's why he set up the Am Shalem political party, which will strive to have ultra-Orthodox Israelis combine Torah studies and work, as both the Sephardi and the Ashkenazi Jews have done in the Diaspora. He also wants the people to return to the moderation and tolerance that were typical of the Jews of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. Shas leaders Yishai and Aryeh Deri absolutely cannot stand him because he holds up a mirror to them in which they appear to be exploiting other people's misery. They are interested in leaving the ultra-Orthodox population ignorant and poor, and dependent on them to receive allowances, grants or reductions. Amsellem wants the exact opposite - an independent Haredi who studies both Torah and mathematics, physics, English and history, so that he will be able to work and earn a good living.
As Maimonides wrote in his book "The Strong Hand," "Any Torah [study] that is not accompanied by work will end in the neglect of the Torah and will lead to sin." Maimonides had studied to be a doctor - something that is impossible for the ultra-Orthodox in Israel today. Amsellem believes the Haredim must serve in the army, except for a nucleus that should devote itself to studying Torah. His own sons served in the Israel Defense Forces on the basis of Maimonides' directive that everyone must serve - even a bride and groom on their wedding day.
Amsellem brings a breath of fresh air also to other aspects of life. He believes the process of converting to Judaism should be made easier; he is against crazy rulings in religious law; he opposes burning the national flag; he is against the violence found in the news posters that are pasted on walls in the Lithuanian community, and the burning of garbage cans in demonstrations. He is even in favor of introducing daylight saving time, as is accepted practice in Europe but not in Iran.
I have a dream that, in the upcoming elections, the public that traditionally votes for Shas will relinquish the false messiahs - party leaders Yishai, Deri and Ariel Atias - and will vote instead for Am Shalem. A Hellenist from the seed of Amalek is truly essential in the Knesset.