'New' Generation Shaking Up Israel's ultra-Orthodox Political Scene

Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger

For many years now, one of the most vexing conundrums in ultra-Orthodox politics has been United Torah Judaism's inability to win more than six Knesset seats, given the very high birth rate of its constituency, which would theoretically add thousands of voters between election cycles. The most common answer is that internal divisions, which can often get nasty, keep some voters home, while others have been known to vote for non-Haredi parties in protest.

While rift and reconciliation have always been part and parcel of ultra-Orthodox politics, the Haredi leadership, particularly its Lithuanian (non-Hasidic ) component, is now facing what many believe to be the greatest challenge of all - competition and bold calls for democratization that threaten to leave the Haredi political scene more fractured than ever. In the run-up to the January elections, a number of parties and players plan to target the growing number of Haredim who are frustrated, bitter, and feel they aren't represented - particularly those who have been derisively dubbed the "New Haredim" because they work for a living, with some even serving in the army and pursuing higher education. The most cautious estimates say that these disaffected Haredim are worth an entire mandate, and when - or if - they vote, UTJ will be the most likely loser.

In April, Yated Neeman, the newspaper of Degel Hatorah, UTJ's Lithuanian faction, ran a scathing editorial against the new Haredim, who consider themselves Haredi in every way but are no longer willing to be considered second-rate when compared to families where the head of household learns full-time. The editorial distinguished between a "Haredi Jew" and the new Haredi, saying the latter "believes that the concept of 'Haredi' is a symbol or brand, which is flexible and changes as needed." According to the editorial, "the 'new Haredi' ridicules the restrictions set down in Halachic rulings." Moreover, it added, "Devices using destructive technology are falling out of his pockets, and members of his household ignore the tenets of modesty."

But since the storm sparked by the editorial, the Lithuanian Haredi community has gone through several shakeups. For one, Yated was wrested from its former owners, who were adherents of the more extreme Jerusalem camp, represented by Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, and is now in the hands of the adherents of Rabbi Aron Leib Steinman of Bnei Brak, where the paper is published. Auerbach's followers in turn launched a newspaper of their own, called Hapeles, which is trying to replace the old Yated by lashing out at any evidence of a "new spirit" in the Haredi camp. And to add fuel to the fire, just after the new paper was opened, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the last remaining rabbi universally accepted as the gadol hador - the leading sage of the generation - passed away.

Now, elections are looming, and Lithuanian Haredim are being buffeted by the rupture represented by Yated vs. Hapeles, Steinman vs. Auerbach, and Jerusalem vs. Bnei Brak. That rupture has now inserted itself into the political arena, after talks to assure that an Auerbach representative is assured a realistic place on the UTJ list broke down. The Auerbach camp has recently registered a new party, called Netzah, that plans to challenge the Degel Hatorah faction of UTJ by mounting a run for Knesset. According to Yaakov Friedman, an Auerbach adherent, "We have always tried to make peace. If Rabbi Steinman's camp comes to its senses and accepts the fact that we are 50 percent of the Lithuanians and relates to us as such, we would of course be happy to run in complete unity. But if not, just as Hapeles was founded and it succeeded, so the Netzah party will run and will be the surprise of the elections."

But this intra-Lithuanian rift is just one problem that the UTJ party, which also has its Agudat Yisrael (Hasidic) component, faces. For example, the Belz Hasidim are threatening to defect to Shas, claiming that the old order, which puts them fourth in line among the Hasidic sects, ignores the fact that they are now the second-largest Hasidic sect, after Gur. Members of some sects, such as Chabad and Breslov, may prefer to vote for right-wing, Zionist parties, while members of some small Hasidic courts may end up boycotting the elections altogether.

But the challenge posed by the New Haredim is something else altogether, because between them and the Haredi establishment lies an ideological chasm which it isn't clear can be bridged. This group - which includes a not-insignificant number of "Anglo" immigrants - no longer wants the status quo, in which their children have problems getting into Haredi schools and their families are rejected by community acceptance committees because the father works. One element trying to get the Haredi establishment to take notice of the new Haredim's demands is the Tov party, an upstart party that in recent years has earned places on the city councils of Beitar Illit and Beit Shemesh. Tov is building - both ideologically and financially - on what remains of the historic Poalei Agudat Yisrael movement, now headed by Hanoch Werdyger, and in next year's local elections plans to run slates in additional cities, including Elad, Modi'in Illit, and Jerusalem. It plans to sit out these general elections, though it may consider running for Knesset next time.

For now, it will try to "participate without contending," as Werdyger put it, and influence the agenda of the national Haredi parties. Tov plans to lead a campaign to change Haredi priorities in the coming elections by publishing polls that will show that "what interests Haredim is not just yeshiva budgets, child allowances and the fight against 'the decree of the [military] draft.'

"We truly plan to change the Haredi agenda," said Werdyger. "Haredi MKs don't have anything to say about a slew of issues - employment, placement, the wages of Haredi women whose employers exploit them. That's leadership?"

Not all the New Haredim identify with Tov. Many still see themselves as Degel Hatorah supporters, and want very much to be able to vote "Gimmel" (the UTJ letter on the election ballots ) as their fathers and grandfathers always did. Many believe that the strident editorial Yated published in April was part of the process of gearing up for the elections that were expected to be called in May, but in the end, were not. At the time, UTJ MKs Moshe Gafni and Uri Maklev ran from one small New Haredi enclave to the other, trying to convince people not to abandon UTJ, but not all were convinced. Some, such as members of a group they met with in Elad, had already voted Shas in 2009 in protest.

Shas' Aryeh Deri, now back as co-head of that party, has taken notice of the New Haredim. He would be very interested in scooping up the mandate that Shas analysts say this group represents, without looking like he's interfering in the internal business of the Lithuanian Haredi camp. Last Friday, for example, he condemned the Haredi high schools that discriminate against Sephardi girls. According to Werdyger, those remarks were also aimed at the New Haredim, some of whom have suffered similar discrimination. Werdyger, at least at this point, does not plan to tell Tov supporters how to vote for Knesset. "I'm not an Admor [head of a Hasidic court] and I can't tell the public how to vote. We will simply raise the questions. But it's true that I'm getting the question 'Nu, so who should I vote for?' I'm really getting that question a lot more than in the past."

An ultra-Orthodox man casts his ballot.Credit: Lior Mizrahi

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