A Struggle in Beitar Is a Struggle for Jerusalem

It is after 11 PM in the Sanz Hasidim study hall, the plates are half empty and the crowd is growing impatient. Suddenly someone calls out: "The important Rabbi Meir Porush and the next mayor, Rabbi Meir Rubinstein, have arrived." Thunderous applause fills the room. MK Porush approaches the microphone first. In a hoarse voice, he expresses in Yiddish his "scorn, derision and anger" at the latest attempt of the bitter rival (whose name is not mentioned here) to disqualify the electoral list by appealing to the Election Committee. Again raucous applause fills the room.

The audience is convinced. The Admor of Sanz, who resides in Netanya, like many other leading rabbis, has already directed the Beitar Hassidim on how to vote. Still, every night assemblies of this kind take place in dozens of communities throughout the city. When the meetings end, in the early hours of the morning, the activists go to the main road junctions and put up posters to replace those that had been torn down or destroyed during the night.

In a week and a half, there will be elections in Beitar Illit, and in this ultra-Orthodox settlement south of Jerusalem there is a war going on, which does not involve their Palestinian neighbors. It is entirely a war by Jews against other Jews.

The current mayor, Yitzhak Pindross (Degel HaTorah), and his deputy, who until recently was also his political ally, Meir Rubinstein (who is supported in part by Agudat Yisrael and Shas), are facing off. They are more or less even.

But the real hero of the elections at Beitar, for better or for worse, is Porush, Rubinstein's political patron, who is primarily responsible for the turmoil that is affecting the entire ultra-Orthodox community, including the MKs and the leading rabbis. The results at Beitar will have an impact, according to experts, on the mayoral elections in Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh next year, and on the struggle between Haredi parties in the Knesset. The struggle in Beitar is also contributing to an escalation of the confrontation between Degel HaTorah and Shas over the state budget, and this follows the decision of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party to back Porush and Rubinstein, rivals of the Lithuanian Haredi faction.

The story at Beitar began six years ago, with an agreement signed between Pindross (Lithuanian) and Rubinstein (Breslav Hassid), on the eve of the elections. Their combined forces enabled them to overcome the previous mayor. According to the agreement, Pindross, who represents the Lithuanian minority in the city whose population is 50 percent Hassidim and another quarter Sephardim, would receive Rubinstein's full support for the first term. Then, Pindross would back Rubinstein to be elected mayor for the second term.

It is now time to cash in on old promises, but Pindross has decided to run against Rubinstein. He holds halachic rulings from Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who decreed that the deal is void. The leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox has ordered Pindross to run for the mayor's seat again. Pindross says that Rubinstein is the one who cancelled the agreement when he told him, and others, that he would not run, but then changed his mind in the last minute, relying on their agreement. For his part, Rubinstein maintains that his late announcement was part of an effort to overcome the "slander" that he has suffered at the hands of Pindross supporters.

Nonetheless, Meir Porush had been involved in the rivalry a lot earlier. Porush considers the Haredi city his bastion and insists on having his man as a mayor there.

Beitar Illit was founded in 1988 in an area between Jerusalem and Gush Etzion. At the time, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir wrote that he wished "that Beitar will expand and grow, and become a major center combining Torah learning, work and love of the Land of Israel." His wishes manifested themselves, at least in part: Currently there are over 31,000 residents there, with an annual growth rate of 7.5 percent; under Pindross, centers for high-tech businesses were established next to dozens of yeshivas and other religious educational institutions. Beitar is the youngest city in Israel, with nearly 2,000 new births every year; only 37 percent of its residents (about 12,000 people) are over 18. Still, even though they may not yet have the right to vote, every child here is familiar with the political differences in town and the balance of power between the factions.

Porush is a cool, experienced politician, who knows how to work behind the scenes. His biggest success in Beitar is gaining the backing of Shas spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, even though some of the Shas residents of Beitar will vote for Pindross. But Porush has not managed to gain much support among the Ashkenazi Haredim, and those who are not opposed to his candidate, will likely remain neutral.

So, are the elections at Beitar so important? Porush is keen to talk about justice. "Among the Haredim, unless there is an agreement, there are always fights," he says dryly. "What brings us to confront each other in the streets every so often is when agreements are not kept. If they are not kept, we will make sure they are kept in other ways. An agreement must be holy, safeguarded closely," he says. Porush has a similar agreement for the mayor's position in Jerusalem, but for now says "first we will finish in Beitar" and then he promises "we will talk about Jerusalem."