Opinion |

Not Servants of the People: In Israel's Dysfunctional Democracy, the Rabbis Reign

Whether guarding the Haredi code of silence over sexual abuse, exposing their people to COVID suffering and death, or abandoning the pretense of serving their community, Israel's ultra-Orthodox lawmakers aren't true public servants. They're soldiers of their Rebbes

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Yaakov Litzman (center) with other ultra-Orthodox politicians campaigning before elections in March 2020.
Yaakov Litzman (center) with other ultra-Orthodox politicians campaigning before elections in March 2020.Credit: Nir Keidar
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

On Monday evening, while the coalition leaders were trying to cajole Mazen Ghanaim and Ghaide Rinawie Zoabi not to vote against the West Bank regulations law, there were intriguing movements in another corridor of the Knesset.

Israel's political crisis is far from over – and getting worse

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Representatives of the coalition were repeatedly seen entering the office of United Torah Judaism MK Yisrael Eichler, who was meeting there with other members of the Belz Hasidic community’s political committee. Could it be that the ultra-Orthodox lawmaker was the coalition’s secret weapon with which to break the tie and pass the law?

In the end, there was no tie, as Ghanaim and Rinawie Zoabi voted against it, while the three other members of the United Arab List, Ghanaim’s party, abstained. So Eichler couldn’t have changed anything. And he denies everything, anyway.

MK Israel Eichler speaking in the Knesset.

But some of his colleagues are convinced there was serious talk of a one-off deal that would have included some coalition gestures in return for Eichler not voting along with the rest of the opposition. And if they talked about it once, perhaps there will be other opportunities for the coalition to hope for help from him and other Haredi lawmakers.

It sounds implausible. After all, UTJ and Shas are Likud’s “natural partners,” as Benjamin Netanyahu calls them. They hate this coalition, with its Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is sworn to squeezing funding for Haredi institutions, and are united in Netanyahu’s comeback campaign.

But on the other hand, a year in the opposition is a long time for the Haredi parties, and all kinds of communal concerns, the kind that were sorted out so easily when they were in the government and ruled the Knesset Finance Committee as to boot, still need to be addressed. Like the budgetary status of Belz schools, for example.

If any Haredi politician is going to break ranks, Eichler is perhaps the likeliest candidate. He has one job in the Knesset, and that is to represent his rabbi, leader of the Belz Hasidic sect, Yissachar Dov Rokeach. As one of the largest Hasidic groups, Belz has a reserved spot on UTJ’s election slate, who is appointed by Rokeach. Eichler has been his choice for many years.

Rokeach, who is known to hold “left-wing” views on matters such as the occupation, has changed Belz’s political alignments in the past. Fifty years ago he broke with the anti-Zionist party Eda Haredit and joined Agudat Yisrael, the original ultra-Orthodox party running in elections. When Agudat Yisrael split in the 1980s, instead of staying there with the other Hasidic rabbis, he joined the “Lithuanian” community’s Degel Hatorah. He is a contrarian and if he believes it is in his Belz’s interests, Rokeach is capable of going against the Haredi consensus.

MK Israel Eichler, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yissachar Dov Rokeach, leader of the Belz Hasidic sect, in 2017.Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO

Eichler isn’t the only Haredi lawmaker who serves in the Knesset as the personal representative of one rabbi. Last Wednesday, UTJ’s Yaakov Litzman bade farewell to the Knesset after 23 years. Not one of his colleagues who took to the podium to praise his decades of public service, including members of the coalition such as Kahol Lavan leader and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, mentioned the real reason Litzman was leaving.

Litzman has been forced to resign as part of a plea bargain with the former Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. Had he insisted on staying on, he would have been indicted for abusing his former position as deputy health minister (he was later appointed health minister) to try and help prevent the extradition to Australia of Malka Leifer, who is accused of sexually abusing dozens of students at the Haredi girls’ high school in Melbourne.

Neither did any of his colleagues mention the man without whom Litzman would never have made it to the Knesset and served as a minister: Rabbi Yaakov Alter, the leader of the Ger dynasty, Israel’s largest Hassidic sect. Like Eichler, Litzman owes his elevation from obscurity to Alter, who fanatically guards his privacy. And just like Rokeach, Alter has his own independent policy and could decide to pull toward the coalition.

Yaakov Alter, leader of the Ger Hassidic sect, at his grandson's wedding in Jerusalem in 2019.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

Haredi politicians have a laudable and rather quaint practice of appointing an assistant in charge of “public requests,” to whom anyone can call for help. Litzman claimed upon his retirement last week that his office had dealt, since 1999 when he first became an MK, with no less than 615,000 public requests. He has always made a big deal out of the fact that his office never discriminated and helped all those who called, Haredi, secular, Jews and Arabs.

But was Litzman a true public servant or just a soldier of his Rebbe?

His public service certainly didn’t extend to Leifer’s alleged victims or victims of other sex offenders whom he tried to help receive better conditions in prison and shortened sentences. As in Leifer’s case, it was part of the Haredi code of trying to keep members of the ultra-Orthodox community out of prison. But the victims were from the community, as well, its most vulnerable members.

Litzman will be remembered for the circumstances in which he has been forced out of the Knesset and for being the health minister when the first wave of COVID-19 arrived in Israel.

Yaakov Litzman in court in Jerusalem on Thursday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

There’s no reason to place the main blame for the government’s failings on those early months of the pandemic. Ultimately, Israel’s health system proved remarkably resilient. Even the haphazard reaction to the first wave of infections can’t be laid at Litzman’s door, as then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had taken over the coronavirus campaign and Litzman was largely sidelined.

But there is one aspect for which history should judge him. In those crucial weeks, he failed to serve his own community. He knew all the details about the virus. He had sat in all the briefings with the experts. And yet, he backed the Haredi rabbis when they at first refused to close their synagogues and schools and yeshivas when the rest of Israel had already gone into lockdown.

They only agreed to close down their institutions as well when news began arriving from the Haredi communities in the United States and Britain of hundreds of deaths, proving that the study of Torah, for all its many qualities, doesn’t shield and protect from the coronavirus. But it was too late to prevent a disproportionate level of infections among the ultra-Orthodox.

Litzman could have acted differently. He could have urged the rabbis to act much earlier. His warnings would have carried more weight than those of the secular epidemiologists. But he wasn’t a servant of the public, not even of his own community. Instead, he used his power within government, as the rabbi’s servant, to stymie attempts to enforce the lockdown in Haredi areas.

That’s how Haredi politics work. The rabbis know what’s best for their followers. They appoint the candidates for whom the community votes. Litzman is the second veteran Haredi politician to be forced to resign in the past year following plea bargains. Shas’ Arye Dery left the Knesset rather than facing charges of tax evasion. To Litzman’s credit, he has never used his political position to enrich himself and followed his rabbis’ instructions throughout. Dery has repeatedly found himself involved in personal corruption investigations and has treated his own rabbis as rubber stamps over the years. But they are both symptoms of the same problem. Whether they’re in coalition or opposition, the Haredi MKs do not represent their communities, but the interests of the rabbis, who will continue holding disproportionate power in Israel’s dysfunctional democracy.

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