In a recent interview with the newspaper Israel Hayom to discuss his candidacy for the post of Israel's Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Rabbi David Stav told of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who recently told him that if he weren't religious, he wouldn't let his daughter go near the rabbinate because they were making it so difficult for her to get divorced. "That's what happens when politics is connected to the institutions of the rabbinate," said Stav, the decidedly non-Haredi chief rabbi of Shoham and the head of a moderate Orthodox group of rabbis called Tzohar, which is perhaps best known for helping Israeli Jewish couples get married in the country despite the obstacles put in place by the Chief Rabbinate.
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"I don't have anything against the Haredi population, but there is a small group of Haredi askanim (ahs-ka-NEEM) who, because of their own personal interests, make Judaism and Haredi society hateful to Israelis," said Stav.
The question is, who are these askanim exactly? Well, they certainly don't have to be ultra-Orthodox; in fact, the word is often used to refer to prominent political activists. Some dictionaries describe askanim as community workers, but in practice the word has less in common with the dedicated advocates for the poor who might be conjured up by the term "community workers" and more with those smooth-talking behind-the-scenes operators who know just the right words to whisper into the ears of all the most important people. They might be political advisers or media consultants or they might be faceless to those out of the loop, but for the most part, they're not the ones in the public spotlight; they're the ones spreading off-the-record rumors aimed at benefiting whichever political, business or other interest they're promoting.
Askanim shares the same root as the infinitive la'asok, meaning to engage in something, whether it's your occupation (esek) or you're just busy (asuk). The more successful askanim are movers and shakers, or backstage makhers, to use the Yiddish word that has permeated both English and Hebrew (where it takes the plural form makherim) and means "big shots."
There are no set rules governing who exactly gets classified as an askan, and the boundary can be fuzzy between political askanim (askanim politi'im) and actual politicians (or wannabe politicians), especially when the former end up running for elected office. That's arguably the case in this election (depending on how broadly you define askan), in which Eldad Yaniv, a former advisor to Ehud Barak, is running as head of the newly founded Eretz Chadasha party and a former bureau chief to Benjamin Netanyahu, Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, has been hailed even by his detractors as the rising star of Israeli politics. So the next time an askan sidles up to you, you might be wise to treat him or her as a potential cabinet member rather than a professional busybody.