Chaim Amsellem
Chaim Amsellem. Photo by Emil Salman
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Shas MK Chaim Amsellem announced yesterday that he was distancing himself from his party, but said he will remain a member of the Shas caucus despite the party leaders' attempts to oust him.

"[My position] belongs, morally and legally, to the public that elected me, supported me and supports me still," Amsellem said at a press conference. "I can't give it to someone else and I won't."

The breakaway MK slammed chairman Eli Yishai's attempts to oust him as an "unprecedented" and ideologically motivated persecution campaign. Amsellem also attacked "fellow travelers" who he said were preventing him from meeting with Shas spiritual leader rabbi Ovadia Yossef.

At yesterday's press conference, Amsellem reiterated the positions which have provoked the ire of the Shas party leadership, including his belief that dedicating one's entire time to Torah study should be "the privilege of a few," while the rest should "honorably earn a living"; that the crisis concerning conversions to Judaism should be resolved, including providing leniency for soldiers who serve in the Israel Defense Forces but are not Jewish according to halakha (Jewish religious law ); and that the core subjects of the national curriculum should be taught in the ultra-Orthodox education system.

Rabbis opposed to teaching mathematics and English are "afraid," Amsellem said, stressing that his positions were consistent with the traditions of Sephardic Judaism and with the Shas ideals. The Knesset member made similar comments during an interview with Ma'ariv some 10 days ago, prompting the current controversy.

When pressed on the fact that he, like all other Shas MKs, committed in writing that he would obey any decision made by the Shas rabbinical council - up to and including resigning from the Knesset - Amsellem said his opinions have been well known since before the elections.

"I'm swamped. A flood of people are begging me, don't betray us, Rabbi Amsellem, you're the voice of sanity, we've prayed for you, where have you been for 25 years?" he said. "A party is just a platform, the people of Israel want to see me as a leader."

Since the Ma'ariv interview, Yishai has taken a number of steps to chase Amsellem out of his parliamentary seat, but has avoided confronting him directly. The Shas chairman met with Amsellem's main patron, Rabbi Meir Mazuz, and then published a letter in which Mazuz called Amsellem "evil," denounced him and accused him of blasphemy.

Yesterday Amsellem countered by presenting a new letter by Mazuz, who now writes that he never saw or signed the first letter. The rabbis said in the second letter that the reports on the first letter should be retracted and threatened legal action.

The first official response from Shas is expected to arrive today in an article in the party's newsletter. The article will apparently describe Amsellem as "the latest purchase at the table of Haredi-eaters," a man who "talks himself out of his beliefs for an ounce of sympathy and slaps on the back from the secular public."

As for Amsellem's own statement, "Yair Lapid himself couldn't have phrased it better," the response will say.

"The opinionated man didn't disappoint, providing the goods at a pace that dazzled the best serial inciters we've known," the article goes on. "For a few minutes of air time and one colorful headline, our mutual acquaintance tossed out biting remarks and particularly weird expressions, presenting the Haredi community in a mocking light and its rabbis as radical, delusional men disconnected from the public's needs."