The recent demonstrations by the so-called “Jerusalem faction” have driven this extremist group further from the mainstream ultra-Orthodox community, and deepened the rift between the two. The demonstrations have been marked by curses and violence aimed at police officers, drivers and female pedestrians. But it is the mainstream Haredi community that sees itself as the chief victim of these protests because its members fear that the entire ultra-Orthodox community is now being branded as violent.
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One clear sign of this deepening rift is that for the first time, mainstream leaders are publicly criticizing the extremists’ behavior.
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, who is considered the number-two man in the leadership of the “Lithuanian” community, as the non-Hasidic, Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox are called, published a blistering letter last Friday in which he termed the Jerusalem faction “sheep without a shepherd.” The letter, which appeared on the front page of the ultra-Orthodox daily Yated Ne’eman, was accompanied by an editorial lambasting the faction.
Until then, the paper had simply ignored the demonstrations. But after several days, it published a series of articles on the issue, including another letter assailing the Jerusalem faction signed by dozens of yeshiva heads.
Several yeshiva heads also attended a demonstration of support for Rabbi Yigal Rosen, a yeshiva head, who was given police protection last Shabbat after suffering several attacks by members of the Jerusalem faction. The door to his home was vandalized, and extremists disrupted his Torah class twice. One of the latter incidents ended with Rosen’s students stripping one of the extremists naked and throwing him into the street.
Rosen told his students this week that “nothing like this has ever happened before. Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, could learn from them. Even the secular media and the mafia have rules and laws.” He added that he feared the extremists would kill him.
“The demonstrations are causing us insane harm,” said a senior official of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox Degel Hatorah party, explaining why community leaders feel they can no longer remain silent. “Young children see this and are drawn to it. The secular community is stigmatizing our entire community as if it were involved in this.”
“All this behavior – running riot in the streets like drunks, spouting profanities, clashing with policemen and drivers – is the antithesis of what a yeshiva student should be,” he added. “Would they dare stop traffic in the U.S.?”
Knesset members from the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party, Shas, also issued a rare condemnation. In a letter to the Knesset speaker, they voiced “disgust with the actions of a handful of ultra-Orthodox demonstrators,” and especially “the severe harm done the Knesset guards. Their ways are not our ways and their actions aren’t in the spirit of the Torah.”
But Degel Hatorah MKs who tried to organize a similar letter failed, because Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, whose Hasidic Agudat Yisrael party runs on a joint ticket with Degel Hatorah, refused to sign.
The ultra-Orthodox paper Mishpacha also commented on the demonstrations for the first time this week. On its front page, it termed the demonstrators “rioters” and their behavior “a new low. Ongoing incitement, posters and false tales led to serious attacks on a yeshiva head.”
Aryeh Ehrlich, Mishpacha’s deputy editor, said the rabbis’ letter is what made it possible for the paper to comment on the demonstrations, which it had previously ignored as a matter of policy. “The taboo was broken,” he explained, adding that he expects this to be “a permanent policy change rather than something one-time.”
“We see them as a public danger,” he said of the Jerusalem faction. “They desecrate God’s name and tarnish the community ... They’re shutting down the country, scorning rabbis. They’ve passed all bounds. So there was no choice.”
Until recently, a senior Degel Hatorah official said, the dispute with the Jerusalem faction was purely political. But now, it has gone beyond politics. “They want power and control, so they’ve created a battle over conscription to justify the schism,” he said.
Although ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students can easily get draft deferrals, they must go to recruitment centers to do so. But the Jerusalem faction bars its members from ever going to a recruitment center, even to get a deferral. Consequently, several have been arrested as draft-dodgers, prompting the recent demonstrations.
The rift between the Jerusalem faction and the mainstream community affects every walk of life. Each group runs its own schools, its own newspapers, its own synagogues and its own political party. Relatives have stopped speaking to each other, and some won’t marry members of the other community.
“The last few weeks have been a final divorce between the two camps,” another Degel Hatorah official said.
The Jerusalem faction doesn’t appear to be worried. “We’re paying a very heavy price for our position, but people are flocking to us,” claimed Rabbi Avraham Boimel, one of the faction’s senior officials.
Another faction member termed Kanievsky’s letter “a sorry joke” and Kanievsky himself “a man who doesn’t understand leadership” and “issues crazy orders every day.” He added that since the mainstream community accepts Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman as its supreme leader, “we have to change the people. The community is ignorant and uneducated.”
Boimel said the week’s big story was actually the failure by Degel Hatorah MKs to get their ultra-Orthodox colleagues to sign a letter denouncing the Jerusalem faction.
“That means most of the ultra-Orthodox community, even if it doesn’t join the demonstrations, recognizes the faction’s value,” he said. The refusal also upheld tradition, he added, since “ultra-Orthodox Jews have never condemned demonstrations by other ultra-Orthodox Jews.”
This fiasco, he said, was a “death blow” for the MKs who tried to organize the letter – Moshe Gafni, Uri Maklev and Yaakov Asher. “They’re not worth anything. They’re irrelevant.”
As for the future, Boimel said the Jerusalem faction’s party – which already has seats on some city councils – is considering running for Knesset. He admitted it probably wouldn’t win enough votes to enter parliament; according to the Degel Hatorah official, the Jerusalem faction constitutes only about 7.5 percent of the Lithuanian community and 2.5 percent of the broader ultra-Orthodox community.
“Nevertheless, we might run a ‘suicide party,’ just to prove ourselves numerically,” Boimel said.