One of the most influential men in Israeli politics has never given an interview, never spoken in public and refuses to meet with politicians who do not observe Shabbat in its strictest form.
Twenty-two years since his elevation to the station of admo”r – master, teacher – and rabbi of Gur, the largest Hasidic court in Israel, the Gerrer Rebbe Yaakov Aryeh Alter remains an enigma even to the majority of his own followers.
Now, though, he may control the fate of the government and perhaps even that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Through a tiny group of meshamshim ba’kodesh (servers in holiness), he issues his edicts to tens of thousands of followers, controlling the most intimate aspects of their lives – from the neighborhood they are to live in, to the frequency they are allowed to have sexual relations with their spouses.
Any mention of his name, and certainly his photograph, are kept out of the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) newspapers, over which his writ runs. His main ambassador to the outside world is Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who in the past tried in vain to keep Alter’s name out of the general media as well.
Alter, 78, was hospitalized for a few days at Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem, last week, and Litzman personally supervised the preparation of three rooms – from which other patients were removed – to provide him with complete privacy. On Sunday, when asked about the incident during an interview, Litzman angrily refused to discuss his rebbe in any way.
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But the rebbe isn’t making it easy for Litzman and other Haredi politicians to continue behaving as if he doesn’t exist.
Alter is also president of the Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Israel, the committee of elderly rabbis which rules over the Hasidic wing of United Torah Judaism (there is another Council of Torah Sages which is comprised of the “Lithuanian” rabbis who control the other wing of UTJ). In that role, Alter has ruled that the governing coalition must pass a new law allowing for the continued exemption of yeshiva students from military service. Until such a law passes, Litzman informed Netanyahu, the 2019 state budget – necessary for his government’s stability and continued functioning – will not get the necessary UTJ votes.
This is an impossible situation for the prime minister. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has made it clear that his own Yisrael Beiteinu MKs won’t support the law that is being proposed by UTJ. And even if they were prepared to do so, it is likely the High Court of Justice will strike it down as unconstitutional, as it did to two previous attempts at exemption laws.
To make it worse, Netanyahu can’t discuss the matter with Alter, who refuses to receive secular politicians. Bibi has only ever visited once, over 20 years ago, when the rebbe was sitting shivah for his sister and couldn’t stop visitors from arriving. But instead of listening to the prime minister’s preferred subjects, Alter instead harangued Netanyahu on the lack of apartments for rent – an issue that, as a multimillionaire landowner with thousands of Gur families in need of housing, has always been one of his main hobbyhorses.
The other Haredi politicians have not received similar instructions from their rabbi patrons. They are more understanding of Netanyahu’s predicament, especially at this moment when he is facing multiple legal challenges. But Alter is not the kind of rabbi to take a secular prime minister’s troubles into consideration – not once he has decided that an issue is crucial to him.
There are those who believe the crisis has been manufactured by Netanyahu and Litzman, in order to give the prime minister an excuse to hold snap elections while he is still leading in the polls and the attorney general has yet to decide whether or not to indict him.
It’s a neat theory, but with one major flaw: Alter is not the kind of rabbi to participate in such tawdry machinations. Nonetheless, the impasse could lead to early elections. Litzman and Lieberman aren’t backing down yet and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has also made it clear that if the budget isn’t passed, he will block all other coalition business as well.
The gerrer rebbe may save Netanyahu – allowing him to campaign again as Likud leader and perhaps win a fifth election victory, rivaling David Ben-Gurion’s record. But most coalition ministers, and perhaps Netanyahu himself, are wary of holding an election in which the two main issues will be the draft of yeshiva students and corruption allegations against Netanyahu. That will only help Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which is already surging in the polls and, who knows, perhaps make Lapid Israel’s next prime minister.
Surely, Rabbi Alter doesn’t want to see the leader of Israel’s most secular party replace Netanyahu? No one knows what he really thinks.