Local Election Campaign Triggers Strife Within Haredi Community

The local elections held Tuesday in Israel unleashed a renewed wave of bitter and sometimes violent animosity between the rival camps within the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community.

Relationships between the predominantly Hasidic Agudat Yisrael party and the largely non-Hasidic Degel HaTorah party were tense and confrontational during the Knesset election campaign last year.

But after the Nov. I vote, some ultra-Orthodox leaders hoped the split would slowly heal. And indeed the Chabad (Lubavitch) Hasidim, who actively supported the Agudah in the Knesset campaign, stayed away from active politics during the days leading up to local elections.

This past week, however, all efforts at compromise and accommodation were swept aside in the renewed sectarian strife.

The climax came Sunday night when Rabbi Eliezer Schach, the 90-year-old spiritual leader of Degel, told a rally in Bnei Brak that Chabad Hasidim were “not Jews.”

Some of the venerable rabbi’s aides sought later to soften the effect of his words.

They claimed he was misheard or mistranslated, and that, in fact, he had merely criticized the Chabad-leaning rabbi of Bnei Brak, Moshe Landau, for “un-Jewish behavior” in connection with mikvah-building regulations.

But the damage was done. The echo of Schach’s remarks, only 48 hours before the close of the campaign, resonated throughout Orthodox centers.

Chabad Hasidim by the hundreds poured into Agudah offices to offer their services on behalf of Agudah against Schach’s Degel HaTorah.

IMMORTAL REWARDS FOR VOTE

Thousands of yeshiva students from the two sides took to the streets, spreading the word of their respective movements and sages, promising immortal reward for a vote for the correct party.

Outside observers believe the hostilities could transcend the election campaign and party politics altogether to remain a deeply rooted phenomenon in ultra-Orthodox life.

Professor Menachem Friedman of Bar-Ilan University, a leading academic authority, said he doubted if the Agudah-Degel rotation agreement on the mayoralty of Bnei Brak could be observed, given the level of animosity between the two movements.

Agudah and Degel have each deposited $1 million to guarantee their mutual pledge to share the five-year term between their respective candidates for mayor of the country’s only haredi-run city.

To some of these observers, the strife conjured up historic memories of the original hostilities between Hasidim and the Mitnagged rabbinic establishment of Eastern Europe in the late 18th century.

This week, Agudah’s Council of Sages issued a rare “protest declaration” defending the present-day Chabad rebbe from repeated attacks on him by Rabbi Schach.

Schach reiterated this week his view that the rebbe is a false messiah.

Last Sunday night a crowd of Hasidic youth of various denominations demonstrated loudly outside The Jerusalem Post building against the printing of a Degel HaTorah election magazine that lampooned the local Agudah candidate.

It took the telephone intervention of the brother of the Hasidic rebbe of Gur, Rabbi Pinhas Menachem Alter, to prevent the demonstration from turning violent.

In a reported jostling incident in Bnei Brak the same evening, four Chabad teen-age girls engaged in election propaganda work were physically attacked by a group of Mitnagged yeshiva students. They had to be rescued by several Hasidim who happened to pass by.

It may all seem quaint and remote to outsiders. But the protagonists themselves, who number in the tens of thousands and are a fast-growing segment of Jewish life here, take the rift very seriously indeed.

Rabbi Schach, in his speech on Sunday, implied that Bnei Brak mikvaot (ritual baths) built by the town’s Chabad-leaning rabbi were non-kosher. The ruling provides fertile ground for further strife within the haredi community.

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