A Fight to the Finish

United Torah Judaism believes the fifth-mandate obstacle will finally be broken in the coming elections.

Every subject is described in the media with its own cliches. If sports broadcasters announce, "It's not over till it's over," local pundits describe ultra-Orthodox politics by saying, "Nothing is over until midnight of the day the party lists are presented" - in other words, tonight.

Agreements are not sealed until the very last minute to thwart pressure to make amendments. In recent months, Agudath Israel and Degel Hatorah engaged in a thorny squabble, peppered with vilification, finger-pointing, and threats of a split in the United Torah Judaism coalition, focused on the sixth position on the list. Yes, all of this bickering was only over the sixth place.

This week, an agreement was achieved between the two parties regarding a rotation between the sixth name on the list, Rabbi Yisrael Eichler, an Agudath Israel representative of the Belz Hasidim, and the seventh name on the list, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Uri Maklev, a member of Degel Hatorah.

It was still unclear yesterday whether Eichler agreed to the rotation or another position would be granted to a representative of the Gerer hasidim, in addition to the senior place held by MK Yaakov Litzman. In retrospect, the solution could have been formulated two months ago.

The feverish pitch of these arguments is particularly noteworthy when one considers that, only last term, the sixth place was not considered to be realistic. During the last decade, the party never successfully broke the barrier of the fifth mandate, despite the steep rate of natural growth in the ultra-Orthodox population. The main reason for this is the colossal wave of immigrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Yet, nearly all polls indicate the party is likely to win six mandates in coming elections - thus, everyone is fighting for the sixth place. But why not fight for the first place or the fifth? Because in this realm, the world keeps turning, as always, with the same veteran fabulous five: Yaakov Litzman (Agudath Israel, in Knesset since 1999), Avraham Ravitz (Degel Hatorah, since 1988), Meir Porush (Agudath Israel, since 1996), Moshe Gafni (Degel Hatorah, since 1988, with a brief break), and Shmuel Halpert (Agudath Israel, since 1981, with breaks.)

The Gerer hasidim, who tend to maintain the principle of rotation every two terms, considered replacing Litzman. But the last term was abbreviated and lasted only three years. This granted him a better starting point in rotation decrees. Thus, Gerer Rebbe Yaakov Aryeh Alter announced this week that Litzman could continue to oversee budget taps during the coming term.

Litzman or Litzmanette

On Tuesday, the ultra-Orthodox Internet forum "Bihadrei Haredim" opened with the question, "Why are there no women on the 'gimel' [United Torah Judaism] list?" Forum participants appear to be taking increasing liberties under the cover of anonymity provided by user names.

"Ashdodit1" used a feminine handle to ask, "Why is a female MK a problem?" and wondered, "Isn't it preferable that a woman, rather than a male Member of Knesset, be exposed to breaches [in which the ultra-Orthodox would serve in parties with others]?"

The natural development of the discussion that ensued was surprising. "Havatzelet Hasharon" wrote, "I believe that we women definitely have something to offer in the political arena." She also wondered why women are permitted to administer the offices of Knesset members but not to serve in their positions. Another writer noted that, "If women sit in the Knesset, their husbands will be free to study [Torah]."

Of course, there were those who accused these writers of betraying ultra-Orthodox values. One even suggested that these women serve as Reform rabbis - the ultimate insult in ultra-Orthodox circles. Writers "Yerei Shamayim" and "Haboneh Soter" invoked the battle waged by the ultra-Orthodox public, during the British Mandate, against the right of women to vote, while "Hanavi B'Sha'ar" explained that, "There are realms which belong to men, by their nature, including politics, which consists mainly of lying, scheming, power and might ... No woman would want to be involved in something so loathsome."

But there were also men who could not understand why there would be a problem with women serving as Knesset members. "David 10" asked, "Why in the United States, for example, did all the major Hasidic rabbis order their followers to vote 'as a holy obligation' for a religious [wig-wearing] woman who ran for a senior position in New York City?"

"Klaf" claimed that, "Ultra-Orthodox representation exists to fulfill only one goal - to milk the public coffers and, 'The more, the better [A quote from the Passover Haggadah, which originally referred to learning],'" and added, "What does it matter who is sitting near the faucet - Litzman or Litzmanette?" He also added that if the fear of breaches in ultra-Orthodox parties becomes a reality, women will be permitted to create their own party.

And "Eitzat Yam" predicted, "It is only a matter of time until the first female Knesset member serves on a non-ultra-Orthodox party." It is possible that she is mistaken, but the fact that some of these issues are even being discussed is an achievement.

A discussion of technical aspects of female, ultra-Orthodox Knesset membership developed on the forum, such as how male ultra-Orthodox MKs would refer to their female counterparts while attempting to avoid the use of female names. "Nero Yair" suggested that the first initial of a female Knesset member be used, as in references to members of the Shin Bet security forces. Thus, a member of Knesset might be called, "MK Mrs. H." "Hanavi B'Sha'ar" suggested that the husband's name be used, as in "MK Wife of Rabbi Avrum Samsonowitz."

Who is the model for the potential, female, ultra-Orthodox MK? "Mashgiach" commented, "There are some females here who think that if they are voted into Knesset, they will turn into Pnina Rosenbloom. "Havatzelet Hasharon" responded, "That's how it is when a man imagines a female MK. I was actually thinking more along the lines of Marina Solodkin."

We'll be rubbing our eyes

Abundant and severe criticism has already been launched by the courts in the direction of the Interior Ministry's Population Administration. Yet, recent statements by senior courts administrator Judge Boaz Okon in his position in the Jerusalem Court for Local Affairs are the most strident to date.

"In not too many years from now, we will be rubbing our eyes in wonder regarding the question of how we condoned what is already obvious," Okon predicts. Okon is referring to the Population Administration's handling of family unification requests from Israeli-Palestinian mixed couples.

He describes Population Administration policy as follows: "When a request is presented to unify a family, the defendants are suspicious. When a decision is called for regarding permanent status, the defendants introduce difficulties. All the while, appellants are forced to navigate a bureaucratic maze: discarded requests, misplaced documents, and more."

According to him, "Raising bureaucratic obstacles is another way of expressing what is obviously clear - that these requests are not desired by the defendants. It is impossible to be anything but astonished by the extent of window-dressing and logistic argumentation we are prepared to use as cover and the administrative passion that is engaged to avoid practical handling of requests of this type - beginning with the physical line in front of administration offices, and continuing with the pile of documents that must be presented to the defendants."

Okon's current wrath was raised in response to the claim that there is reason to suspect that the Haladas, parents of seven children, are not legally married.

Courts frequently complain that the across-the-board refusal policy of the Interior Ministry, in response to requests for family unification, causes many unnecessary appeals. However, when the judge who writes such statements is the courts administrator and the man responsible for the efficiency of the judicial system, these complaints seem to have even greater validity.

According to him, "More than once, it has been said that the court cannot be transformed into one of the defendant's reception windows and neither the prosecution nor the courts should be the place in which a variety of requests are practically and seriously considered for the first time."