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Sephardic Party Under Pressure from Rabbis to Quit Government

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Tension is still running high within Israel’s haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community following the decision by the Sephardic haredi Shas party to join the Labor government.

Rabbi Eliezer Schach and other leading non-Hasidic Ashkenazic rabbis have declared that joining the government is prohibited.

These rabbis, who head the Degel HaTorah wing of the United Torah Judaism party, are threatening to “delegitimize” the Shas spiritual leader, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, unless he orders his party to quit the coalition or has Shulamit Aloni removed from her post as education minister.

Schach and other haredi rabbis declared that Aloni, who heads the left-wing Meretz bloc, will “lead the children of Israel into apostasy.”

They insist that no haredim may serve in a government in which she is the minister of education.

By delegitimizing Yosef, they mean attacking his many halachic books and recommending they no longer be studied in their influential yeshivas.

Schach and his aides are also directing strong pressure at the other members of the Shas Council of Sages to abandon Yosef and quit the party.

Yosef so far has withstood the pressure. In a lengthy handwritten statement he published over the weekend, he explained his decision to join the government and not to leave it despite Aloni’s appointment.

He did that, he said, in order to protect and enhance the many achievements that Shas had won in recent years in terms of haredi education. He noted specifically that the military service deferment system for yeshiva students would be endangered if the haredim turned their backs on the new government.

PLEDGES TO RESTORE HAREDI EDUCATION

As for Aloni, Yosef pointed out that haredi education is an autonomous department within her ministry, headed by a Shas deputy minister.

The former chief rabbi also noted that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had assured him in writing that the curriculum of Jewish heritage taught in non-religious schools would not be reduced under Aloni.

Aloni herself, in a series of interviews, pledged to “restore to haredi education” that which her predecessor as education minister, Zevulun Hammer, “plundered from it over the years.”

Hammer is a leader of the National Religious Party, which is Orthodox but not haredi and therefore in competition for funds with the department in question.

Aloni, who is widely regarded as a foe of the Orthodox religious establishment, said that Jewish heritage “does not belong exclusively to any one party” and stressed that she, as a person well schooled in Jewish sources, certainly does not want Israeli children to be ignorant of their heritage.

Rabin spent two hours in private conversation with Yosef last week at his Jerusalem home. Political observers felt the premier wanted to bolster the Sephardic sage’s determination to stick with his decision, despite the pressure.

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