The late leader of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Rabbi Eliezer Menahem Schach, was a man of wars and factionalism. Ultra-Orthodox Judaism has different types of leaders. Some are tzadikim, righteous men who are known for their virtuousness and modest way of life. Some are great poskim, who make major decisions regarding Jewish law. Rabbi Schach was an ideologue. He was a zealot who repeatedly led his followers into ideological battles.
For decades, Schach was considered the patron of the Sephardim (Jews of North African and Middle Eastern descent) in his party, Agudat Israel. He initiated the establishment of many Sephardi yeshivas, headed by his students. And so it was only natural for him to be a partner to the establishment of the Shas party, which represented the first split in Agudat Yisrael.
The direct reason for establishing the Sephardi party was Agudat Yisrael's refusal to honor agreement mandating rotation with a representative of the Sephardi, or Mizrachi, Jews on the list. The practical reason was the long-standing policy of shortchanging the Sephardim in the ultra-Orthodox party. Rabbi Schach also hoped that a Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party would reach an electorate that could not be reached by Agudat Ysrael, as in fact happened.
The surprise was Schach's agreement to join up, in establishing Shas, with former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, despite Schach's strenuous objection to the chief rabbinate. The move was accompanied by a brilliant political maneuver. Schach's support of the party was kept a secret until the last moment. Only on the eve of the elections did one of Schach's associates, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, write on a slip of paper, "I and the members of my family are voting Shas." The note was publicized in ultra-Orthodox circles, and two mandates of Schach supporters deserted Agudat Yisrael for Shas.
A split in Agudat YisraelAgudat Yisrael became a significant factor in Israeli politics after joining the coalition following the upset of 1977, when the Likud came into power. Schach then led the party together with the late head of the Gur Hasidim, Rabbi Simha Bunim Alter, father of the present dynasty leader. There were many differences of opinion between Schach and Alter. One of them concerned the Gur rebbe's demand that all Agudat Yisrael Knesset members be obligated to accept rotation, including the Lithuanian Knesset members who were controlled by Rabbi Schach. This controversy caused Schach, one of its two presidents, to leave the Council of Torah Sages of Agudat Yisrael in 1983.
Another difference of opinion concerned the growing control by the Gur Hasidim of the Agudat Yisrael newspaper, Hamodia. When Rabbi Schach came to the conclusion that the newspaper was not obeying him, he established a competing paper, Yated Ne'eman. This new newspaper served less as a source of information than as a powerful weapon in Rabbi Schach's many wars.
In 1988, the split was completed with the establishment of the Degel Hatorah party. In the past, Agudat Yisrael had the trappings of a democratic party, it had a central committee and internal elections. Degel Hatorah was a different type of party, whose motto was absolute obedience to the great Torah sages. The Council of Torah Sages also split into two councils. The council of Degel Hatorah almost never meets, and has served all along as a rubber stamp for Rabbi Schach. The two splits, of the newspaper and of the party, were difficult and painful, and were accompanied by violence. They broke up families and caused tragedies.
Only in 1992 was an agreement for a reunification of the two parties signed, not as one party, but as two separate factions on the lists of United Torah Judaism.
A battle which continued during the entire period of Rabbi Schach's leadership was that against the Chabad Hasidic movement and its leader, the Lubavitcher rebbe. Schach accused Chabad of false messianism long before this became a well-known fact, and called Chabad "the well-known sect." Schach's attacks on Chabad reached a peak at the beginning of the 1990s, when he declared that the Lubavitcher rebbe was "not normal."
Rabbits and pigsBetween 1988 and 1992, Schach reached the height of his political power. He was the leader of two parties, Shas and Degel Hatorah, which together had eight mandates. His protege Aryeh Deri served as the interior minister, and did a wonderful job of transferring money to ultra-Orthodox institutions.
In 1990, two new Schach battles began. Shimon Peres, who was finance minister at the time, and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of Shas, that year led the move that was later called the "stinking maneuver." This involved bringing down of the unity government headed by Yitzhak Shamir, and the attempt to establish a narrow government headed by Shimon Peres. Both Peres and Deri thought that because Rabbi Schach was a political moderate, Degel Hatorah would support the move, and that they would have a majority. They both totally misread Rabbi Schach, and were destined to pay a high political and personal price for their mistake.
It was not by chance that the Labor Party tended for years to identify Rabbi Schach with their positions. Again and again, the rabbi, in his speeches during the 1980s, repeated his support for returning territories and his opposition to the settlements. Schach supported every concession that could prevent bloodshed. Schach claimed that ultra-Orthodox people who opposed withdrawal and supported the settlements were doing it owing to Zionist influences.
But in April 1990, it turned out for the first time that Rabbi Schach's hatred of the left and his historical accounting with the Labor Party were much stronger. He explained his position in the midst of the "stinking maneuver" in his famous "rabbits and pigs" speech, delivered at a rally in Yad Eliyahu stadium. "The Alignment [a party led by the Labor faction] severed the past from the Jewish people," claimed Schach. "Today one can meet children who don't know what Shabbat is. There are kibbutzim that don't know what Yom Kippur is. No idea, and they raise rabbits and pigs there. And this is called the Jewish people? Is the Alignment something sacred? They have no Shabbat and no Yom Kippur. They have a new theory and a new Torah."
Victory for NetanyahuSchach's account with the left was not only historical. In the wake of the left's criticism in the Sabra and Chatila affair [when Ariel Sharon, who was defense minister at the time, was accused of not preventing the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militias in the two refugee camps in Lebanon], Rabbi Schach accused the left, and especially Peres, of "informing in public, at demonstrations and in speeches and the press, which constitutes incitement of all the nations, and has contributed to the hatred of the Jewish people. What a shame and a disgrace. There have always been informants, but not an entire community of them."
The first part of the "stinking maneuver" succeeded, when the Shamir government was brought down. But the astonished Peres and Deri discovered that Schach strenuously objected to a left-wing government. In order to frustrate the establishment of the narrow government headed by Peres, he joined his sworn rival the Lubavitcher rebbe, and together they imposed a narrow government headed by Shamir.
That was not the last defeat Schach handed Peres. In 1996, Peres ran for prime minister against Benjamin Netanyahu. At the beginning of that year, Schach was suffering from severe pneumonia. He slept almost all day long, and even when awake, had a hard time communicating with those around him, and cut himself off from politics. He refused to make decisions, claiming that his physical condition did not enable him to take responsibility.
But a few weeks before the May 1996 elections, Schach's condition improved tremendously. He reached the peak of his strength three days before the elections, when he decreed in no uncertain terms that everyone had to vote for Netanyahu, and forced all the other leaders of Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah to follow his example. Rabbi Schach's decision made an important contribution to Netanyahu's narrow victory in the elections. After the elections, Schach once again sank into a long sleep.
A pardon for DeriThe "stinking maneuver" also caused a rift between Schach and Deri. At the end of the 1980s, it was Schach who said that Deri had done more during a short period in the Interior Ministry than had been accomplished in 40 years by the ultra-Orthodox movers and shakers who preceded him. But in the wake of the "stinking maneuver," he suggested to Deri that he go back to study at the yeshiva.
The rift reached its climax in 1992. It all began when Schach sponsored a Sephardi faction, headed by former Shas leader Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, as part of the United Torah Judaism list. In a speech he delivered before the elections, Schach said that the Sephardim were still not fit for leadership, and aroused great anger among the Sephardi voters. After the elections, Schach instructed Shas not to join the government in which Shulamit Aloni was serving as the education minister. Rabbi Yosef instructed Deri to join the government, and then an open rift broke out between the parties. Deri was boycotted and shunned in the Ashkenazi [Jews of European origin] Lithuanian circles in which he had been raised. Schach declared that Shas had removed itself from the Jewish community when it joined the wicked, and defined Deri as one who "hasn't read, hasn't studied and hasn't interpreted."
Deri himself has believed all along that the investigation and trial against him are a punishment for defying Rabbi Schach. His series of attempts to placate the rabbi have been rejected. A year ago, Deri used the mass rally that took place before he began his prison sentence to publicly beg Rabbi Schach's forgiveness. Only then did Rabbi Shach accept his apology and forgive him.