The ultra-Orthodox Rabbi at the Center of the Crisis That Almost Toppled Israel's Government

Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Aler, who ordered Health Minister Litzman to resign, rules Israel's most powerful ultra-Orthodox group with a firm hand

Aaron Rabinowitz
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Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter at his grandson's wedding, 2007.
Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter at his grandson's wedding, 2007.Credit: Lior Mizrahi
Aaron Rabinowitz

At the center of the affair that nearly toppled the Israeli government and rocked ultra-Orthodox society stands the spiritual leader of Israel’s largest Hasidic community: the admor of the Gur sect. Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter is the person who from his position over the government’s approval of railway maintenance work on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. Alter rules the largest, most powerful and best-organized Hasidic group in Israel with a firm hand.

The power of the Gur Hasidim comes first of all from their numbers – an estimated 50,000 people. Alter is young and dominant compared to other Haredi leaders. The heads of the non-Hasidic Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community are all at least 90 years old and are not always in the best of health, says a source in the Haredi community who knows the Gur sect very well. The rebbe is involved in decision-making down to the last detail, he said. Alter is “only” 78. He succeeded his uncle as rebbe in 1996.

The Gur Hasidim are considered to be independent, and as opposed to the rest of the ultra-Orthodox community they are active in electioneering in Jerusalem and political battles currently underway in Haifa. “They don’t give a damn about anyone else, not even the Degel Hatorah [party, which, combined with Agudat Yisrael, comprises the United Torah Judaism party]. They call themselves the ‘central faction’ [of the Haredi community] and only see themselves,” said the Haredi source.

Their political power historically came from a previous rebbe, who was one of the dominant figures behind the founding of Agudat Yisrael. As for the present rebbe, Alter, his Hasidim are willing to “kill themselves for the admor. because they insulted the rebbe,” said the source.

Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews protest against the municipality of Arad.
Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews protest against the municipality of Arad.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

The power of the Gur community lies in the combination of their size and their organization abilities, said a member of the sect. “It bases itself on total obedience to the rebbe without questions or reservations. The present admor is very involved and controlling,” he added.

For example, in the past, people in the community put up ads with a picture of the previous rebbe in the central Gur study hall in Jerusalem, but this practive infuriated the present rebbe, said the community member. Since then all those who want to put up ads must talk to him first. “He goes over every ad personally. He is a person who runs everything. He is involved in every detail. His outstanding characteristic is leadership,” he said.

The sanctity of Shabbat is the flagship issue for Alter. The step that led to Litzman’s resignation had been in the works for months, orchestrated by Litzman’s opponents in Alter’s court, said a source inside United Torah Judaism. Litsman’s rivals in the community complained to Alter constantly about the work being carried out on the Jewish Sabbath, said the UTJ source. This left him with no real choice but to act.

Others in UTJ are remaining silent out of the fear that if they speak out against Alter’s orders, it will ultimately lead to demands that the party leave the government coalition completely, he added.

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