Restoring the Crown to Former Glory

Assertive and defiant despite calls for his resignation, Shas MK Chaim Amsellem maintains that traditional Sephardis need their own representation, and not to be led by Lithuanians.

If you ask MK Chaim Amsellem whether he is fighting Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, he will say "Heaven forfend!" - and take umbrage at the very question. At most, he may be fighting Shas party chairman Eli Yishai. "A dictator," Amsellem calls Yishai, who is also the interior minister. Amsellem has pictures of Rabbi Yosef in his home and office, and they will remain there "for all eternity," he vows, even if Shas' spiritual leader has thrown him out the party this week in disgrace.

MK Chaim Amsellem Alex Levac
Alex Levac

"Rabbi Ovadia is the object of my admiration, the love of my heart," says Amsellem in an interview at his office on Monday. At that moment, the object of his admiration was hosting three fellow members of the Council of Torah Sages, and could not stop his tears while being told what Amsellem had said to the media about yeshiva students who don't work. Two of Amsellem's own children, both yeshiva graduates, served in the army.

"Rabbi Ovadia? I don't blame him for anything. They tell him, 'Chaim Amsellem is a destroyer of Israel,' and there is no one to balance this picture. Eli Yishai is inciting against me. He's incited the whole world, so what do you want the council rabbis or Rabbi Ovadia to do?" he asks.

In his first interview since his party disowned him, Amsellem outlines the new one that he intends to create - a political home "for people like singer Kobi Oz," who are part of the Mizrahi cultural revolution, and for Shas' main electorate: "traditional" Jews who have always been the majority of the party's voters. Shas, he insists, is not interested in them.

"Thousands of people have been contacting me. They write to me, they call, they stop me in the street," he says. "And if I have a political path, I am not at liberty to evade it. I simply can't. It would be a betrayal of what I project. I project hope, and what am I going to tell the public - 'Sorry, I couldn't stand the pressure?'"

He continues: "We will establish purely holy yeshivas, and in addition, we will support ultra-Orthodox high schools that also teach general studies, have matriculation exams and (produce ) students who study at universities. We will support everything. Why is this impossible?"

Will he partner with former Shas leader Aryeh Deri? "I'll go with anyone who wants to join my ideas and accepts the path," replies Amsellem.

The Council of Torah Sages presented Amsellem with a demand it knew he would reject - that he resign from the Knesset. The dismissal, penned by Rabbi Ovadia himself, states: "The Shas Council of Sages convened this evening in great sadness over the remarks by Chaim Amsellem, who opened his mouth disrespectfully against the dear yeshiva scholars worth their weight in gold, who engage in Torah day and night and maintain the whole world with their Torah, and 'cooked his stew' in public in order to ingratiate himself with haters of the Torah, biting the hand that fed him."

Amsellem is a rabbi, but the letter did not even mention this title, adding: "He too has joined those who make trouble for us - the ignoramuses who hate scholars of the wise."

The sages also declared: "We demand of Mr. Chaim Amsellem under the law of Torah that he return the mandate to Shas in accordance with his commitment ... We call upon everyone for whom the Torah is dear to keep a bowshot's distance from this man and from his strange and heretical opinions."

That night, unofficial placards were posted in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak saying Amsellem was "opening his mouth with vanities and falsehoods" and "desecrating Heaven's name."

Shas spokesman Roi Lachmanovitch told Haaretz, "After what the Council of Sages said about Amsellem, there is nothing to add. His remarks are not worthy of response, nor is he who spoke them."

The Sephardi way

Amsellem, father of eight and grandfather of 10, was born 52 years ago in Algeria to a Moroccan family. When he was a child, his family moved to France, and from there to Israel when Amsellem was 11. A relative of the renowned Abuhatzeira family from Netivot, Amsellem grew up in a home with ultra-Orthodox leanings, but that also respected Moroccan rabbis like Rabbi Shalom Mashash, chief rabbi of Casablanca and Jerusalem and an enthusiastic Zionist (and, no less important, Rabbi Ovadia's bitter rival ).

Amsellem himself studied under Rabbi Meir Mazuz, head of the Kise Rahamim Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, and was close to the rabbi until recently. He was a communal rabbi in the south and in Switzerland, and wrote books on rabbinical law that won enthusiastic support from the most prominent rabbis, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi.

He has been in politics for years, ever since relatives and his eventual patron, Rabbi Baruch Abuhatzeira (aka Baba Baruch ), found him a job in the Ashkenazi-Hasidic Agudat Yisrael party at the end of the 1980s. He was elected to the Knesset only in 2006, after being put in 10th place on the Shas list, as the representative of the Baba Baruch and Rabbi Mazuz.

He has had friction with Yishai since he joined Shas. It worsened during the current term, as Amsellem published articles criticizing the Shas leadership and its ideological path, mostly on the Kikar Hashabbat website.

A year ago things escalated when he published a book, "The Seed of Israel," in which he suggested a combined state-halakhic (Jewish legal ) solution to the conversion crisis. The book, which he says is based on legal rulings by Sephardi rabbis including Rabbi Ovadia, proposed easing requirements for conversion for people who serve in the Israel Defense Forces and have a Jewish father. This proposal got him in trouble with Rabbi Ovadia as well as the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox leadership, which embarked on a campaign against him.

Relations became worse after the affair of the ultra-Orthodox girls' school in Immanuel this summer. Amsellem protested the party's silence amid the discrimination against the Sephardi students there, and the way Sephardi ultra-Orthodox are generally pushed behind certain barriers.

"This is a historic moment," declared Amsellem on Monday. "Since the day Shas was founded, under the warm wing of (Ashkenazi ) Rabbi (Eliezer Menachem Shach ), and also during the years when Rabbi Ovadia was independent - it always has been threatened by the Lithuanians. From time to time they would scare it with statements like: 'Shas has given a divorce to the world of Torah,' or 'It has joined up with the Zionists.' All these years Shas has in fact been a stepdaughter of the Ashkenazi parties.

"Now a person comes along and says, I will restore the crown to its former glory, really, without blinking or casting sideways glances at the Lithuanians, with total commitment to the Sephardi way. This isn't historic? Ever since the establishment of Shas and the eradication of the Mizrahis from the old parties, there hasn't been a true and clear Sephardi entity that represents the person whose vote you are taking. You say to him, 'I want to restore your crown to its former glory, in your old, good accent, in attire, in thought, in content, in Bible verses, in Mizrahi melodies, in reading the Torah. Not in a ceaseless attempt to be 'in' with the Ashkenazis. We aren't looking for that."

He adds, "The majority of the Jews in Israel are Mizrahi. I don't want them to become Lithuanians. Only three or four of the 11 mandates Shas has are ultra-Orthodox, and their representatives have come to resemble Ashkenazis. I don't, heaven forbid, want to destroy Shas. Shas is indeed intended for those who consider themselves Sefardi-Lithuanian. Anyone who isn't like that is my man. He's the one I'm aiming at."

In an interview with the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic radio station Kol Barama about two weeks ago, Amsellem described a struggle that began before the founding of the state and still exists today: It is between "thousands of Sephardi Jews from Jerusalem" in the period of the pre-Zionist Jewish community and "half a million Jews from North Africa."

The Jerusalemites, including Rabbi Ovadia, are the elite of the Porat Yosef Yeshiva in the Old City, which adopted the Ashkenazi mode of traditional learning and its way of life. However, says Amsellem, "In the Sefardi world there are all kinds of outlooks. There was the outlook that copied the Ashkenazi method onto the Porat Yosef Yeshiva with a Sefardi accent, even though there was no real difference. They upheld yeshiva study like the Ashkenazis, including studies after men marry. Mizrahis from throughout the Diaspora - the Mediterranean basin and North Africa - called for integrating into society.

"Have you ever seen a Moroccan rabbi on the Council of Torah Sages? An Algerian rabbi? A Turkish rabbi? Hardly ever. Shas' founders established the party under the wing of Rabbi Shach and in keeping with the Jerusalem school - but not our school, the welcoming school that considers the Torah to be the capstone, but considers a productive life combined with Torah as a supreme value.

"I can only say that today you are seeing a revival in the Moroccan community. Everyone wants to keep his traditions," he says. "I definitely think there is a place for the sages of Porat Yosef, but there is also a place for the Moroccan sages, the Algerian sages. The Porat Yosef sages were anti-Zionist, they opposed Knesset elections. What do I have in common with that approach? I am in favor of service in the IDF. Anyone who isn't studying Torah at a yeshiva should go serve in the IDF. My whole approach to conversion is part of the pragmatic approach from North Africa."

New ultra-Orthodox

From the reactions he has been getting, Amsellem says he's learning that "the Sephardi public really is fed up with this behavior of taking their votes in order, time after time, to serve the Lithuanian public, be it Sephardi or Ashkenazi. It could be the public is saying we love Torah and those who study it and we will fight for them. But let's also fight for the country's periphery - maybe we'll fight for young couples, maybe we'll fight for scholarships for students, maybe we'll fight discrimination, maybe we'll do something for the traditional Jews of whom there are so many, who are giving us their votes."

Is this connected to Rabbi Ovadia's revolution in rabbinical law, which brought all the Sefardis together under the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch?

"I don't want to get into that."

What makes you ultra-Orthodox today?

"Do you want to define me as a Zionist? Please do. If Zionism means giving our share to the state, I am a Zionist. If Zionism means a war against religion, I am not a Zionist. The best definition, someone once said to me, is: 'You're new ultra-Orthodox.' My message is not for the ultra-Orthodox. I am a new ultra-Orthodox man who is talking to the whole nation, who is talking to traditional Jews, to the knitted skullcaps (national religious Jews ), to those who love Moroccan hymnody, the North African fragrance, the glorious Egyptian style, the Lebanese and Syrian openness."

In his office, Amsellem flips through new e-mails with promises like "I will vote for you," and enthusiastically culls reader responses on the ultra-Orthodox websites. He also has been impressing secular commentators, who would like to see him found a new party. But that is not what Amsellem planned upon his departure from Shas. And he certainly didn't expect to take such a drubbing from his spiritual patrons, Abuhatzeira and Mazuz.

The ultra-Othodox website Da'at cites a letter from Mazuz stating, "I hereby disassociate myself from all the interviews Amsellem has given without my permission and knowledge." Even ultra-Orthodox fans of Amsellem are having trouble digesting this.

Are you still an emissary of your rabbis?

"No. That's over. I am no one's emissary. I am completely independent. This is an exit to freedom. Until now, the rabbis could tell me, 'Do this, or do that.' I think this is a kind of maturity the public in Israel needs. Rabbis should engage in Torah and legal rulings and yeshiva heads should teach Torah. I will consult with rabbis, but with all due respect, I am not interested in having one set of rabbis or anther impose things at the level of a Council of Sages or Greats. With the councils, when rabbis are fed by politicos - only bad things come of it. Rabbis should be obeyed but this whole style, which is a copy of the Ashkenazi style, just doesn't look right to me."

With respect to Rabbi Mazuz, Amsellem observes: "This is a case of disengagement, not alienation. I knew that since he is dependent on Shas, he can't do anything against the party. Nor have I asked him to. I understand him. I don't see myself as cut off from him. Clearly we are in a tense period. With God's help, time will pass, the rabbi will realize the rightness of my move and he will decide. I don't feel alienated. I've spoken to him even after he wrote the letter against me. Rabbi Mazuz, who is a practitioner of gematria (Hebrew numerology ), has told me 'Chaim Amsellem' equals 'independent power.' I haven't checked. Do the arithmetic."

We did the arithmetic. Both come to 239.