Tens of Thousands Attend ultra-Orthodox Party Rally

Five days ahead of Israel's election, Lithuanian Haredi leadership warns that anyone who doesn't vote will be guilty of blasphemy.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Haredi rally in Bnei Brak, March 11, 2015.
Haredi rally in Bnei Brak, March 11, 2015.Credit: Moti Milrod
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews attended a rally near Tel Aviv Wednesday in a bid to drum up support for the United Torah Judaism party ahead of next week’s election. Rabbis railed against alleged enemies of the ultra-Orthodox, but everyone was eager to hear what was said about internal foes.

United Torah Judaism is an alliance of the Hasidic Agudath Israel party and the so-called Lithuanian, non-Hasidic Degel Hatorah. But even the Lithuanian side is suffering from a rift.

Many Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, no longer consider UTJ its representative and don’t view a rebellious Lithuanian rabbi, Shmuel Auerbach, as their leader.

The rally was led by the head of the Lithuanian camp, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, who at 101 hasn’t made many appearances during the election campaign. Shteinman addressed the masses for less than a minute and urged them to vote on election day.

A letter by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, who sat next to Shteinman on the podium, was read out warning that non-voters would be guilty of blasphemy. MK Moshe Gafni added that “next week we must all influence each of us [to vote] for the sake of the entire nation of Israel.”

There is a sense of urgency at Lithuanian Degel Hatorah given the rift and polls showing that UTJ is wavering between six and seven Knesset seats. Ahead of the rally, the streets of Tel Aviv suburb Bnei Brak were filled with posters calling on people to attend the event. Starting the evening before, activists with loudspeakers went around ultra-Orthodox cities urging voters to attend the rally in Bnei Brak.

Degel Hatorah must now be able to prove its claim that the minority that obeys Auerbach is insignificant. Wednesday’s gathering was designed to prove that the policy of ignoring leaders from the Auerbach faction has been fruitful.

With Election Day approaching Tuesday, the line is clear: Seven seats for UTJ in the 120-seat Knesset will be considered an achievement. Six will be seen as proof that the exclusion of the Auerbach faction has been costly.

If that happens, the Hasidic factions of Agudath Israel are likely to bitterly complain that the Lithuanians failed to deliver the goods. Degel Hatorah will bear the brunt of the responsibility.

The Auerbach faction has youth on its side as well as experience with huge demonstrations for Haredi army deserters. It’s not about to leave the scene.

This Sunday it will hold a rally in Jerusalem in an attempt to prove that its followers can cause UTJ to lose one Knesset seat. The event is being held after several attempts to persuade Auerbach to call on his followers to vote UTJ failed.

Meanwhile, Shteinman and Kanievsky have published a letter calling on “yeshiva students and each and every person without exception to take part in this important gathering for it is dearly important to us.” The Yated Ne’eman newspaper got on board.

“The future of the Torah world lies in the balance .... Left and right are both dreaming of being able to form a government without Haredim, of the moment when the Haredim won’t be able to tip the scales, just as happened after the last election,” the paper said in an editorial.

It later alludes to the Auerbach faction. “We will stand like a mighty wall in the face of those who seek to strike at us and make us fall,” the paper wrote. “Our strength is in our words and prayers, and together we will cry out to Our Father, Our King: Shut the mouths of our oppressors and accusers.” 

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