In the last term, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made quite an effort to improve his relationship with the ultra-Orthodox sector. This included, for example, a meeting with the leader of Degel Hatorah, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, that was also attended by his friend, Aryeh Deri. Elyashiv asked to limit the phone sex services available on cellular phone networks. Olmert agreed and set out to fight the cellular phone companies. Since being appointed finance minister, he frequently works together with Knesset Finance Committee chairman Yaakov Litzman.
In a recent interview with journalist Yossi Elituv of the ultra-Orthodox paper Mishpaha Olmert said he "believes the situation of the ultra-Orthodox sector at the end of next year will be better. The average ultra-Orthodox person came out after the new budget better off than before it." He also felt a need to "point out that I often visit Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and I'm glad I worked against the abomination flooding the cellular phone systems, after the rabbi's personal request."
Olmert, like Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Likud party's candidate for prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had intense romances with the ultra-Orthodox sector, and all three broke the hearts of the ultra-Orthodox. The ultra-Orthodox sector's attitude to politicians is a bit like the Israeli public's attitude to the Eurovision song contest. The question is who is for us and who is against us; who likes us and who hates us. Nothing else is relevant.
But Olmert, like Sharon and Netanyahu, proved to the ultra-Orthodox in the last term that in politics in the end it is mainly interests and how many Knesset seats you have to offer the coalition that counts. All three were partners in the Sharon-Shinui government, which was dubbed the worst of the worst of persecutory governments (as opposed to the Barak-Meretz government, which was just a persecutory government), the one that slashed child allowances and government funding for yeshivas.
An alliance with the ultra-Orthodox public is what brought Olmert his great victory over the legendary Jerusalem mayor, Teddy Kollek. But the ultra-Orthodox claim that in his second term as Jerusalem mayor, Olmert was much less generous to them. And worst of all - they see him as responsible for the 2003 agreement between the Likud and Shinui chairman Yosef (Tommy) Lapid that pushed the ultra-Orthodox parties out of the coalition. There is no way of knowing "who the real Ehud Olmert is and who exactly we will now have to deal with," wrote ultra-Orthodox journalist Yaakov Rivlin several months ago in the Bakehila newspaper.
Olmert said in the interview with Elituv that arguing that he was the architect of the coalition without the ultra-Orthodox "is a combination of a lack of knowledge and a bit of meanness." So who is responsible? "The prime minister-elect, Sharon, did not want Shas as a partner in his government," Olmert said and also argued vehemently that there was nothing stopping United Torah Judaism at the time from entering the coalition with the Likud and Shinui.
On the night of Saturday November 4, 1995, when news of the attack against prime minister Yitzhak Rabin became known, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef stopped his weekly Torah lecture, broadcast via satellite to tens of thousands of spectators, and said he was stunned and shocked. Yosef did not know at the time that Rabin had died and announced he would dedicate his lecture to the prime minister's recovery, and asked his audience to pray for his recovery.
Last Thursday, Shas party chairman Eli Yishai rushed to issue a statement saying, "Rabbi Ovadia Yosef calls upon the entire Israeli public to recite psalms and pray for the recovery and health of Prime Minister Sharon, the son of Vera." But on Saturday night, Rabbi Yosef's satellite broadcast lecture took place as usual and dealt only with Torah-related subjects, with no prayers for the welfare of the prime minister.
The satellite broadcast lecture is the rabbi's means for communicating directly with his flock of admirers. Associates of Rabbi Yosef and ultra-Orthodox commentators agreed this week that the rabbi's silence was not coincidental. A senior ultra-Orthodox media person claimed the rabbi's close associates even prefer that the rabbi not say anything, among other reasons, for fear the rabbi will have a slip of the tongue and reveal how much he dislikes Sharon.
Sharon became prime minister essentially thanks to a series of political moves by Shas chairman Eli Yishai, among them resigning from the Barak government and Yishai's opposition to Knesset elections, which prevented the return of Benjamin Netanyahu. That did not stop Sharon from leaving Yishai in the opposition after the former's victory in the 2003 elections. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is an establishment man. The opposition, in his eyes, is like exile. It is very hard for him to forgive for the three difficult years in the opposition.
If there is a quote from Rabbi Ovadia Yosef that Shas members would rather have forgotten this last week, it is what he said less than a year ago: "The Holy One Blessed Be He wants us all to return to the Torah and then in one fell swoop He will place him in an eternal slumber from which he will not rise." Eli Yishai said in response, "On Thursday the rabbi was called to the Torah and recited a mi she'beyrach [blessing for the recovery of the ailing] for Sharon. In our schools, we prayed on his behalf."
According to Yishai, "It's not like the attack on Rabin, because then the rabbi was handed a note about the incident in the middle of the lecture. I'm with the rabbi day and night. I talk to him. He is interested all the time in hearing what is happening."
On the ultra-Orthodox Internet forum B'Hadrei Haredim (In inner ultra-Orthodox sanctums) there is a chat room that already has close to 100 jokes about Sharon's condition. One of them notes that two days ago, for the first time in his life, Sharon fasted on the fast of the Asara B'Tevet (the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tevet, marking the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem during the Second Temple period).
Ultra-Orthodox sources report that the jokes are also spreading rapidly via SMS. Of course, only those who did not follow the rabbis' directive to go back to using first-generation cellular phones without SMS capabilities could receive the text messages.
When one senior ultra-Orthodox politician was told one of his colleagues was arranging a prayer service for Sharon's recovery, he asked if a quorum of 10 Jews could be found to pray for Sharon's welfare. Ultra-Orthodox sources tried this week not to rejoice over the misfortunes of others, but they feel that expecting them to take part in the national show of anguish is really too much.
It wasn't always that way. Sharon was once the most admired secular politician in the ultra-Orthodox sector, was the contact man of Likud governments with great Torah scholars and was received at ultra-Orthodox events with the respect reserved for rabbis. "There is Sharon A and Sharon B," explained an ultra-Orthodox media person. "The ultra-Orthodox public loved Sharon A and the secular public despised him. Now the secular people love Sharon B, the father of the nation and a distinguished leader, and the ultra-Orthodox public despises him."
The ultra-Orthodox are not suppressing their joy over the downfall of Omri Sharon, the man who in recent years controlled the religious establishment. "Omri is seen as hostile to the ultra-Orthodox," says an Agudat Yisrael activist. Whereas in the Havatzelet Hasharon room on B'Hadrei Haredim, one surfer complained this week: "Suddenly everyone loves him, the corrupt little guy. They embrace this criminal of a teddy bear. What an idiotic people we have here."
Naturally, every medical incident, natural disaster and even major terrorist attack also has an important educational message and public relations spin as far as the ultra-Orthodox are concerned. This past Sunday, the ultra-Orthodox author Haim Walder published an article in which he compared Sharon to the Twin Towers. What's the connection? The prime minister, like the Twin Towers, is a symbol of power, strength, largeness and stability that suddenly collapsed. Sharon's illness, the ultra-Orthodox press wrote, is a reminder that the greatness of human actions is fleeting, that everything is determined in the Heavens and that "the hearts of kings and ministers are in the hand of God."
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