A Newspaper War Rages in the ultra-Orthodox Backyard

A fight over who will succeed an ailing leader is being fought in print – and threatens to split a community.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

In the intensive care unit at Jerusalem's Shaare Zedek Medical Center one night mid-June, doctors were trying to prolong the life of a 102-year-old man who has been hospitalized there for the past several months. This evening, live every other during this period, in the corridor outside the unit, relatives and yeshiva students gathered and prayed for the speedy recovery of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the most important leader in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Israel.

Meanwhile, in the editorial offices of Yated Ne'eman in Bnei Brak, a succession battle was in progress: screaming, shouting, fistfights, attempts by the "old guard" administration to physically hold up the printing presses, and the summoning of police cars. The next morning, much to the old guard's chagrin, it was clear that the paper had been successfully printed and distributed. The front page carried an open letter announcing a new "Maran" (Aramaic for "our master, our teacher" ), a successor to Rabbi Elyashiv: Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman of Bnei Brak. (The editors did, however, take pains to print above the letter a call to the public to continue praying for the old Maran's recovery. )

During its 27 years of existence, Yated Ne'eman, the daily newspaper of the "Lithuanian" Jewish community (the leading ideological group in the non-Hasidic Haredi world ), molded public opinion in Haredi society in Israel, which in turn molded the newspaper. Today, it is a battleground in which two factions are fighting for supremacy. One is led by Rabbi Shteinman, 98, and the other is led by Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, 85, from Jerusalem. Each of these two rabbis sees himself as the bearer of the torch that Rabbi Elyashiv, who has been dubbed the "posek hador" (the authoritative interpreter of Jewish law ) of his generation, has carried up to now but on which he is slowly losing his grip.

On issues unrelated to the Haredi community, Shteinman and Auerbach give the impression of being members of the same conservative-minded club. However, from the standpoint of Haredi ideology, there is a wide abyss between them. The Bnei Brak faction, which is active in the "Lithuanian street," launched an internal coup that is still in progress. It began with a quiet process that took place over a number of weeks, during which Shteinman loyalists, headed by New York businessman Shimon Glick, took over the newspaper's administration. Three weeks ago, they completed the takeover with the ousting of editor-in-chief Nati Grossman and two rabbis from the paper's "spiritual committee." A few days later, they also fired Yated Ne'eman's general manager, Yaakov Labin.

Although the Grossman-Labin camp is struggling to regain control of the newspaper, in many sectors of the Haredi community one can hear a huge sigh of relief. The people who have been dismissed are perceived as a band of zealots who conducted their own version of the Spanish Inquisition: When they were at the helm of Yated Ne'eman, they ejected from the public arena countless numbers of Haredi Jews, figuratively burning them at the stake. Anyone they suspected as having deviated from the norms of Haredi society, or of having weakened its sacred ideal, became the target of vicious articles and exposes whose agenda was clear. Or, alternatively, their names just stopped appearing in Yated Ne'eman.

Because of their loyalty to Auerbach, the newspaper's top brass paid scant attention to other rabbis considered to be gedolei hador ("leaders of their generation"), especially Shteinman, and instead provided wide coverage for the rabbis belonging to the Jerusalem faction under Auerbach's leadership.

Benny Rabinowitz, a journalist with the newspaper since its launch, makes no secret of his loyalty to Shteinman and his anger at the way he was treated at Yated Ne'eman. Rabinowitz describes the former managers as "clerks who pretended they were the owners, who forgot that they were clerks, and who continued to think they owned the paper. Their behavior reminds me of [the late deposed Libyan leader Muammar] Gadhafi, who continued to claim that he was still in charge even after the rebels had captured him."

Rabinowitz states categorically: "Yated Ne'eman, which, at a certain stage was abducted by clerks who belong to the margins of the Lithuanian Jewish community, has finally been restored to rabbinical control."

The other camp, however, is waging a determined battle to return to the helm. An Israeli court issued a restraining order against Labin, instructing him to stay away from the newspaper's editorial offices, after a fistfight broke out two weeks ago.

In a widely publicized move, though not a precedent in the Lithuanian Jewish world, Labin turned to the secular Israeli judicial system for relief rather than to a rabbinical court, as is customarily done in Haredi society and as was always prescribed by the newspaper's founders. In the name of the nonprofit association that operates Yated Ne'eman, he asked the court to issue a restraining order to keep Glick, who is now chairman of Yated Ne'eman's board, away from the editorial offices and to order Glick's people off the premises.

"A gang of outlaws that is headed by Glick and which has never had any ties either with the company or the newspaper," it is stated in the writ requesting the restraining order, "has joined the ranks of persons who currently officiate on the board of directors and has attempted to unlawfully seize control of the company."

The court rejected the request, but it did cancel the restraining order against Labin. In the meantime, it appears the Auerbach camp has despaired of ever being able to resume control of the newspaper. At an emergency meeting it held in Bnei Brak, the Auerbach camp declared that yeshiva students must immediately cancel their subscription to Yated Ne'eman.

It set the tone

The paper plays a key role in the Haredi theology of Da'at Torah ("knowledgeable opinion of the Torah" ), according to which there is only one truth and it is to be found exclusively in the hands of the "leader of the generation." This religious argument and the brutality demonstrated by members of the Lithuanian community created a situation in which the positions expressed in Yated Ne'eman regarding any issue - whether religious, political, educational or public - set the tone not only within that community and its political party, Degel Hatorah, but in all of Haredi society, including Shas and the various Hasidic groups. The newspaper determined what Haredi Jews in Israel should fight for and whom they should remove from positions of power.

Yated Ne'eman was the brainchild of Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Schach, who founded it to serve as a watchdog that would attack anyone suspected of being willing to make compromises or of having strayed from the prescribed path; the newspaper's targets included Chabad Lubavitch, Shas and members of the Lithuanian Jewish community who worked for a living and who have recently been insultingly dubbed as "New Haredim." Armed with his pen, Grossman showed zero tolerance for anyone who did not meet his standards.

Rabbi Schach (1898-2001 ) was one of the founders of the Haredi community in Israel after the Holocaust. He believed that Torah scholars should be accorded a higher social standing than Haredi Jews who worked for a living, and who, in Haredi parlance, are referred to as "ba'alei batim" or laypeople. The project succeeded beyond his wildest expectations, and turned Torah scholars into the perfect match for any student of the Haredi community's female teachers colleges.

From its founding, Yated Ne'eman attempted to emphasize a sharp difference between Torah scholars and Haredi Jews who worked for a living, whom it presented as inferior. In addition, the newspaper launched savage ideological attacks on Sephardi Jews, Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Chabad, religious Zionists and the settlers.

Many members of the ultra-Orthodox community were disgusted by this Haredi version of McCarthyism and believed that Shteinman would put an end to it. For years, Shteinman, known to be a pragmatist regarding the idea of yeshiva students going to work, has made strenuous efforts to eradicate his image as a "reformer." This image was created after he agreed, in the 1990s, to cooperate with various initiatives designed to promote a dialogue between the Haredi community and mainstream Israeli society, such as the Kinneret Covenant, the Nahal Haredi (a division of ultra-Orthodox Jews serving in the Israel Defense Forces' Nahal Brigade ) and the Tal Commission.

Shteinman's present leadership is a far cry from reformist, and focuses on Haredi society rather than on the rift with the non-Haredi Jews in Israel. Interior Minister and Shas leader Eli Yishai is a frequent guest in the home of Rabbi Shteinman, who also often hosts representatives of Chabad Lubavitch.

Today, it is Schach loyalists who are the ones complaining that they have been robbed of both their leadership and Yated Ne'eman. "Rabbi Schach left a legacy," says a senior member of the defeated camp. "He formulated a clear ideology. There is a continuity to the Torah that the entire Haredi community believes must be passed on from generation to generation. However, there is now the feeling that any new king can reverse sanctified principles.

"Rabbi Shteinman's followers can argue that Rabbi Schach's approach does not suit them and that they therefore want to publish their own newspaper. They can publish a letter calling on all Yated Ne'eman subscribers to burn their subscriptions. However, it is not legitimate to seize control of the newspaper itself. This is an attempt to capture the queen when the king is right there in the palace. It is an attempt to use the instrument Rabbi Schach created in order to further other ideas."

Shteinman's followers argue that, in terms of numerical strength, no comparison can be made between them and Auerbach's followers. As someone who knew Rabbi Schach very well, Rabinowitz recalls that "at the first meeting of the Degel Hatorah Council of Sages [the Degel Hatorah party representing the Lithuanian Jewish community was founded by Rabbi Schach in 1988], Rabbi Shteinman sat to the right of Rabbi Schach."

Last week, at a meeting of Yated Ne'eman workers and in the shadow of the coup at the newspaper, Rabinowitz said (citing one of the Haredi community's senior members, Rabbi Natan Zohavsky ) that the leadership of the community had been proposed to Shteinman several years ago when Rabbi Schach was ailing, but that Shteinman had turned down the proposal. It was only then that Schach's followers turned to Rabbi Elyashiv.

Beyond the historical and legal claims, each party to this dispute is arguing that the other party has dealt a mortal blow to the principle of Da'at Torah. As one member of the Auerbach camp put it, "Da'at Torah has been given a severe blow because of the manner in which the takeover of Yated Ne'eman unfolded. It is hard for the public to accept people from Rabbi Shteinman's camp acting like thieves in the night."

Rabinowitz chuckles: "When Rabbi Schach founded Yated Ne'eman, his approach was clear: The newspaper would have to be subject to the decisions of the newspaper's Spiritual Committee, and the rabbis would have to subordinate themselves to the decisions of the great spiritual leaders of the Children of Israel. The Spiritual Committee is an emissary of those great spiritual leaders, and its role is to show Yated Ne'eman the proper path. In recent years, a situation has been created where, instead of people coming to the great spiritual leaders and asking them what must be done and how, they are now telling the great leaders what they should say. Are we now going to tell the great leaders what Da'at Torah should be? Everything has been turned inside out."

In any event, in the month since the takeover was effected, aside from anointing Rabbi Shteinman as the new Maran, the new Yated Ne'eman has not moved one millimeter from the positions advocated by the old Yated Ne'eman, if only not to arouse suspicion that the new newspaper is guilty of innovation. The first step was to publish Shteinman's views on the induction of yeshiva students into the IDF and on the Plesner Committee, which has been given the mandate to find an alternative to the Tal Law. "There is no room for discussion, and no compromises will be made," the new was quoted as saying. Moreover, the newspaper is continuing with existing campaigns within the Haredi community - for instance, in its published attacks on the independent weekly Mishpaha ("Family" in Hebrew ), or on a job fair organized for the Haredi public.

The anonymous spokesman of the Auerbach camp estimates that the "secular Jewish public is not going to derive much benefit from this revolution. Meanwhile, we are the only ones who are deriving any benefit, because we find it very funny to see how Rabbi Shteinman's followers are pretending to be zealots."

One of Yated Ne'eman's victims is Bezalel Cohen, who grew up in the Lithuanian Jewish community in Israel, is a graduate of a number of yeshivas, and defines himself as a Haredi social activist. According to the newspaper's official line, he has strayed from the path. For several years, he has been launching social initiatives that undermine the official line. For instance, he has encouraged Haredi Jews to obtain a post-secondary secular education, and his attempts to conduct an open discourse in the Haredi public . For these sins, he has directly and indirectly been treated quite harshly by Yated Ne'eman.

In Cohen's view, the "same schism that Yated Ne'eman wanted to create in the 'Lithuanian' community is already happening, but the difference is the size of the factions. Yated Ne'eman's people wanted to be the leaders of the largest faction and to leave the smaller faction out in the cold. What is happening is the precise reverse. The conservative-minded have remained the smaller faction. When they took over the newspaper, Rabbi Shteinman's people did not want to create a schism; they simply wanted to become more dominant. However, the conservatives foolishly decided not to play according to the rules of the game, instead of making peace with the new situation. Their struggle against the new Haredi Jews has backfired because the public is fed up with them. I do not see an option in which they will continue as a unified society."

The schism that Cohen anticipates in the near future in the Lithuanian Jewish community fills him with hope, in light of the initiatives he would like to spearhead: "In my estimate, Rabbi Shteinman, who is not a young man, will not suffocate the public; this is what is important.

"The best thing that is happening to us right now," Cohen continues, "is not that Rabbi Shteinman's standing in the Haredi community in Israel has been enhanced, but that the sword of Damocles has been taken away. I am talking about that sword which Rabbi Auerbach and his people constantly waved over our heads. Reforms can be introduced without a Council of Sages, but it is hard for them to withstand bitter attacks. Today the Lithuanian warriors are becoming powerless; they will not sanction any major wars. Rabbi Shteinman will be one of the signatories to the 'letters' against these initiatives and others that will be considered reformist, but he will not fight those initiatives with sword and spear."

Statements like that are not welcomed by the Shteinman camp; the last thing it needs is the image of being lukewarm. "I believe," says Rabinowitz, "that, if Maran Rabbi Shteinman instructs us tomorrow to conduct a struggle over this or that issue, we will stand as soldiers ready to carry out his orders. For Maran Rabbi Shteinman, struggles and wars are a constraint, not an ideology. When he has to fight, he is a man of war. He conducted an aggressive struggle on the issue of the induction of yeshiva students into the army and he is not prepared to make any compromises on that subject. Maran Rabbi Shteinman is one of the cleverest people I know. All the private and public problems reach his desk and he manages everything brilliantly. If he says that we have to go into battle, he will do so because the struggle will be beneficial; he would never order us to jump headfirst into an empty swimming pool."

One member of the Auerbach camp noted, "What we have been seeing over the past two weeks is the complete reverse of what was anticipated. Yated Ne'eman is publishing things that, if Rabbi Auerbach had authorized them, would have been blocked because they are so extremist. For instance, the statement, in Rabbi Shteinman's name, that the army is a 'very problematic place, where there are many grave violations of the Torah's laws.' And the attacks on the weekly Mishpaha are continuing. All this means that the Shteinman people are behaving like the pig that shows its hooves and declares, 'You see, I'm also a kosher animal.' They know that the 'Lithuanian' public is saying, 'If Yated Ne'eman is going to change its line, we will oppose that.'

"This revolution could produce a situation in which Rabbi Shteinman presents inflexible positions so that he and his people can't be accused of having launched a revolution in order to lead a program of reforms. For many months to come, they will try very hard to publish extremist articles. Ironically, the revolution might lead Yated Ne'eman to an even more extreme position than the one Rabbi Auerbach advocates. The big fear is that all of this is only make-believe, a sham that is intended to hide the bitter pill and that, when the new regime has consolidated its base, it will show its real positions."

On two points, the spokesmen of both factions are in agreement. The first one is that it will be impossible to mend the rift in the "Lithuanian" camp. The second point is that the dramatic changes that have taken place at Yated Ne'eman will not have any impact in the foreseeable future on relations between Haredi Jews and the non-Haredi majority in Israel; it certainly will not promote greater understanding between them. In order to learn what does happen in the more distant future, we will just have to wait for the sequel .

Outside Yated Ne'eman's editorial office in Israel.Credit: Yair Ettinger
Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (center) and Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman (right) at a 2009 United Torah Judaism conference.Credit: Eliahu Ben-Yigal / Jini



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


The Orion nebula, photographed in 2009 by the Spitzer Telescope.

What if the Big Bang Never Actually Happened?

Relatives mourn during the funeral of four teenage Palestinians from the Nijm family killed by an errant rocket in Jabalya in the northern Gaza Strip, August 7.

Why Palestinian Islamic Jihad Rockets Kill So Many Palestinians

בן גוריון

'Strangers in My House': Letters Expelled Palestinian Sent Ben-Gurion in 1948, Revealed


AIPAC vs. American Jews: The Toxic Victories of the 'pro-Israel' Lobby

Bosnian Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic speaks during a press conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia in May.

‘This Is Crazy’: Israeli Embassy Memo Stirs Political Storm in the Balkans

Hamas militants take part in a military parade in Gaza.

Israel Rewards Hamas for Its Restraint During Gaza Op