Election Season Leaves Haredi Politicos No Time for Repentance

Ultra-Orthodox infighting continues in run-up to November 11 Jerusalem mayoral elections.

Hoshana Rabbah, two days ago, was the annual deadline for every Jew to repent. According to tradition, divine judgements signed on Yom Kippur are sent on the holiday, which is also the seventh day of Sukkot - but tradition doesn't necessarily come into play in ultra-Orthodox politics. This year, instead of repenting in the run up to the seventh day of Sukkot, Haredi politicians were busy committing various sins and transgressions: from lies and deceit, gossip and envy, to boycotts, backroom deals, spin and intermingling. There is no need play the self-righteous card. After all, politics is politics. But at present, particularly as we approach municipal elections in Jerusalem, the pot has reached its boiling point and will likely leave the entire ultra-Orthodox political establishment with nasty burns.

The flames even threaten to consume the fringes of the silk overcoats of some of the rabbis and Hasidic leaders. It is a bit difficult to keep track of all the rapidly-changing headlines, the latest of which was provided by MK Yakov Litzman, the chairman of United Torah Judaism and a loyal follower of the Hasidic Gerrer dynasty. Last Saturday evening, in the Beit Ya'akov Seminar in Jerusalem, speaking before a large crowd of Hasidic minions, Litzman nearly lost his cool when he fingered Meir Porush, an MK in Agudath Israel, a faction of his own party and its candidate for mayor, as public enemy number one. Porush will not enjoy the support of the Gerrer Hasidim at the ballot box, Litzman boomed, a move that will likely spell the end of ultra-Orthodox rule over Jerusalem.

"There are those who say that Jerusalem needs to elect a Haredi mayor," Litzman said. "What is a Haredi mayor? A Haredi mayor is one who has wisdom of the Torah! So for example, the mayor who pretends to be mayor, does he have enough wisdom of the Torah to ask someone? To ask whom? What kind of wisdom of Torah? What kind of Haredi?"

In his view, Porush is no better than attorney Amnon De Hartuch, the former justice ministry bureaucrat, who wore the knitted skullcap all ultra-Orthodox love to hate. De Hartuch is known in Haredi circles for slapping an ultra-Orthodox MK who accused him of being worse than the Germans. Litzman asked what would happen if, hypothetically speaking, De Hartuch were to run against secular Jerusalem mayoral candidate, Nir Barkat. "Would somebody say that he observes the Sabbath and that we need to support him because he observes the Sabbath? They would say no. Why? Because if someone slaps people in the face, then it doesn't matter if he observes the Sabbath or not. So what does it matter if it is slapping someone with hands, or feet, or through the pen, or through bulletin board notices or any other way?"

This was the latest in a string of outbursts, which began immediately following the announcement by Porush, who represents the followers of the Hasidic Agudath Yisrael faction of United Torah Judaism, that he intended to run for mayor. Initially, it was Shas and Aryeh Deri who sought to undermine him. Then came the non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox followers of the Degel Hatorah faction of United Torah Judaism (otherwise known as "the Lithuanians") who did everything to try to bring him to his knees. But while others were eulogizing his candidacy, Porush was cashing in on a golden opportunity. The ultra-Orthodox school system, the Independent Education network, has been a Gerrer asset until six months ago, when the man who served as the director of the schools, Meir Loria, passed away. Since his death, the Haredi factions have struggled to agree on a successor.

Despite earlier clashes, Porush forged an agreement with the Lithuanians - including the senior rabbis, chief among them Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman - and established a new power-sharing arrangement. The Gerrer Hasidim were left out of the deal. Thus, the way was paved for Lithuanian support for Porush on the road to the ballot box, where he is gearing up for a head-on collision with Hasidic factions that few have dared to challenge in the past. His calculation is simple: The Gerrer Hasidim have 2,500 registered voters in Jerusalem, while the Lithuanians claim many more. Combining their support with that of Shas as well as some of the religious Zionists, and Porush may have the right recipe for an election victory.

Even prior to Litzman's appearance on the eve of Sukkot, the Hamodia newspaper, which is the mouthpiece of the Gerrer Hasidim, published an advertisement denouncing Porush for "a serious deed the likes of which has never been seen among us, an attempt to perpetrate a theft in pitch darkness."

The ad, which stated that Porush's transgression could not be reconciled with, originated at the highest levels of the Gerrer Hasidic leadership. A Hasidic follower blessed with a sense of humor joked that he planned to cut out the ad and hang it in his Sukkah for decoration. There are Gerrer Hasidim who cannot understand what all the fuss is about, though others take Litzman's declaration of a state of emergency very seriously. Porush aides said this week that those around him "are fearing violence."

Nonetheless, Porush supporters are certain that the gamble against the Gerrer Hasidim was a justified one. One of Litzman's loyal followers described his leader's moves as the "unruly behavior of a helpless man, of a Hasidic sect that has already lost its dominance," adding that "the Ger will lose in any event. If Porush is not elected in Jerusalem, the Ger will emerge as the loser who toppled the ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem, and if Porush is elected, then it is clear that the Ger is outside the game. This is certainly the fall of an empire."

Meanwhile, these scenarios remain theoretical. Until November 11, it seems every political operative in the fractured ultra-Orthodox community will continue to pray hard for the downfall of his respective rival.