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"From the day early elections were declared, our representatives in Agudat Yisrael and Shas have been reciting one single mantra into every microphone, its entire content and essence reeking of Tommy," wrote a cynical Dudi Silberschlag, the publisher of the ultra-Orthodox newspaper `In the Community' recently.

He went on: "If not for the law limiting the use of amulets and incantations, I'd recommend distributing amulets with the image of Baba Tommy and little bottles of pure olive oil blessed by him."

There is something weird, almost sick, in the fact that almost the only reaction of the ultra-Orthodox parties to the expected growth in Shinui's power is satisfaction with the electoral gains it will bring them. It's lucky we have Shinui, say Shas people, rubbing their hands with glee. United Torah Judaism (UTJ) people bless the Lord who sustained them and brought them to the time of Shinui.

Has the ultra-Orthodox public considered how it is possible that a party whose main message is "stop the ultra-Orthodox" has doubled its strength in the polls and sprung from six to 12 mandates? Has a rabbinical committee been appointed to investigate this failure? Hard to believe - but the answer is no. A survey of editorials in the ultra-Orthodox media shows there has been no debate on issues like - how did we make ourselves so hated, have we extorted too much, perhaps Rabbi Ovadia Yosef overdid it with all his abuse and reviling, and has the evasion of military service gone too far.

By contrast, there is a penetrating public debate in the ultra-Orthodox media about who will be Yahadut Hatora's fifth Knesset member - the Belzer or the Vishnitzer - representative, and who will rotate with whom.

A possible explanation for this obtuseness is the distorted perception of part of the ultra-Orthodox, that the secular people's hatred toward them is nothing but another version of anti-Semitism.

Like anti-Semitism, they regard this as a decree of fate that cannot be controlled, and for which the ultra-Orthodox are not to blame but only the "goyim" - the secular. It's a persecutor-persecuted relationship - Lapid is the paritz, and they are the oppressed Jews trying to outwit him.

Another explanation, no less detached from reality, was proposed by Finance Committee chairman Ya'akov Litzman of Yahadut Hatora, in an interview with the local `This week in Jerusalem': "It so happened that a few people gathered round Shinui and voted for them as a one time act." So there is no real cause for concern.

The ultra-Orthodox `Hashavua' claims that some ultra-Orthodox functionaries would not like Shinui to disappear. "They want Shinui to be there so they can fight it, otherwise who needs that schlemiel group? It's a coalition of clowns on either side. They manufacture hatred to gain dividends, and we suffer the consequences."

Silberschlag himself provides a lone voice of soul searching in interviews on pirate ultra-Orthodox radio stations. "It's 100 percent our accomplishment," he told Ha'aretz this week regrading Shinui's expected growth. "It's entirely ultra-Orthodox doing."

Deputy Education Minister Avraham Ravitz, of UTJ says the subject is debated all the time, but in closed ultra-Orthodox forums, and he sees no point in making them public. "I am very frightened by the fact that 160,000 intelligent people support a party whose main message is hatred of original Jews," he said. Ravitz agrees that the ultra-Orthodox bear a great deal of the responsibility for the growth in support in Shinui.

However, Ravitz doubts the ultra-Orthodox public's ability to pay the price involved in improving their image with the secular public. He says for that "we need to give up our just demands for budget equality."

The prevalent opinion in the ultra-Orthodox public is that the large families law have caused very great damage to its image. Ravitz admits that during the legislation harsh internal arguments raged in Yahadut Hatora. But he is not convinced that a compromise like equalizing the budget for all children would really help allay the hatred.

The ultra-Orthodox leadership would do well to stop celebrating Shinui's rise and take time for some profound soul-searching. Their problem is not merely Shinui, which may ultimately get only seven or eight mandates. The problem is hundreds of thousands of citizens - secular, observant, religious and non-Jews - who think of the ultra-Orthodox in exactly the same way Shinui's voters do, but who prefer to vote for parties with a clear political message.

This is not sibling hatred. A large part of the free public no longer regards the ultra-Orthodox as brothers, but as members of an eccentric and dangerous cult whose connection with mainstream Judaism is purely accidental. This is a public that regards the Russian goy who does his army service as part of the nation, while the ultra-Orthodox shirker from military service is not.

To sum it all up - there is not one Lapid (torch in Hebrew), but many burning torches and the fire is blazing furiously. It is doubtful if solving the rotation problem between Vishnitz and Belz will put it out.