Last Sunday morning, as journalists reported on the conflict between the Likud party and Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett over Bennett's supposed support for soldiers disobeying orders, the headlines of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) newspapers were reporting on a conflict of their own. The haredi conflict had nothing to do with political blows but with physical ones, which were part of the harshest conflict that the Lithuanian stream of haredi Judaism has seen over the past decades, if not ever.
To outside observers, it looks like a fight between two rabbis from the same movement over control and honor. But some people claim that it is actually a conflict that could change the face of haredi Judaism for future generations, starting today. “Rabbis’ emissary cruelly attacked in Jerusalem by lawless men who tried to murder him,” the headline of the newspaper HaPeles screamed in red ink after the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Nati Grossman, was attacked last Thursday by two haredi men who stabbed him in the head and fled.
Grossman was taken to Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, treated, bandaged and released to his home for Shabbat. “We never thought it would reach this point or that haredi people would behave this way. If people thought this conflict was out of proportion in haredi terms, there aren’t enough words to describe this attack as anything but inhuman,” close associates of Grossman said.
This battle, which can now be described as bloody, began last July 18 with the death of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the undisputed leader of the Lithuanian haredi movement since the death of its previous leader, the mythical Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Man Schach, who died in 2001.
The battle over the succession did not last long. Even while Rabbi Elyashiv was hospitalized, his successor, 98-year-old Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, was named as the next leader. During Rabbi Elyashiv’s lifetime, Rabbi Shteinman was considered his No. 2 man, and when Rabbi Elyashiv was hospitalized, it was Rabbi Shteinman who had to deal with the “decree of the draft” and make decisions about internal haredi matters. Although no official ceremony was held after Rabbi Elyashiv’s death, Rabbi Shteinman kept his status and became, for all practical purposes, the leader of the major and most influential haredi sect, the Lithuanian movement.
Seventy-five kilometers away in Jerusalem, the associates of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, the son of the well-known and revered Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, also a high-ranking rabbi of the Lithuanian movement, tried unsuccessfully to crown him successor. While the rest of the Lithuanian rabbis accepted Rabbi Shteinman’s authority, the Jerusalem group would not, and so the fight began.
The first stormy round of fighting, which put the entire Lithuanian world into a tailspin that has lasted until now, concerned the takeover of the newspaper Yated Ne’eman by Rabbi Shteinman’s associates. Yisroel Cohen, a haredi journalist from the haredi news site Kikar HaShabbat, explained: “It’s the mouthpiece of haredi Judaism. Control of Yated Ne’eman is critical. Besides the honor and prestige, it’s the place where the most important rabbis get their messages across and where they put all the burning issues of the haredi community on the agenda. It’s a lot of power.”
Yated Ne’eman’s management, including the editor-in-chief, Nati Grossman, were thrown out. They started their own newspaper, HaPeles, whose officials say already has 3,000 subscriptions. The opening of the newspaper did not go smoothly, and since it began publication, accusations over advertising in it have gone back and forth. The parties have claimed several times that commercial firms were threatened that if they did not advertise in the newspaper or advertised in its competitor, they would suffer boycotts and damage.
One man who paid a particularly high price for that was Menahem Carmel, a well-known businessman and owner of the haredi Bar Kol supermarket chain, which advertised in HaPeles. In the latest meeting of the Council of Torah Sages, which set the Degel Hatorah Knesset list, he was pushed out of the realistic third slot.
“We want joint leadership”
The ongoing conflict has not stayed only between the rabbis’ followers, but has spread to their very homes. Each side complains of humiliation by the other. “Last Hanukkah, Rabbi Shmuel came to visit Rabbi Shteinman. While they were both inside, Rabbi Shteinman’s people reported that it was not an important visit whose purpose was to break the ice. Instead, they came out and said that Rabbi Shteinman’s door was open to everyone during the holiday and Rabbi Shmuel was just another visitor,” said an associate of Rabbi Auerbach.
The associate continued: “How could anyone say that about Rabbi Shmuel?! Where did anyone ever hear of such a thing? It’s like putting a knife in his back and twisting it. Even worse, when they sat down, Rabbi Shmuel had to ask everyone to leave the room so he could speak with Rabbi Shteinman alone. Is it logical that a guest should need to do a thing like that? Among such great rabbis, nuances like these have a lot of significance. Someone is deliberately trying to humiliate him.”
These statements upset Kobi Rosenstein, Rabbi Shteinman’s close assistant. “Nothing like that ever happened. When Rabbi Shmuel arrived, he was given a royal welcome. The rabbi spoke privately with him and accompanied him to the door. He never had to ask for privacy at all. They (the Jerusalem group) just want controversy and fighting, and they don’t have a leg to stand on. They’re nasty people who look for quarrels all the time. We want peace.”
According to Boaz Naki, one of the people identified with the Jerusalem group, there needs to be unity in leadership between the two rabbis. “The demand is for joint leadership by Rabbi Auerbach and Rabbi Shteinman. Rabbi Shmuel is the successor of Rabbi Schach and Rabbi Elyashiv, and it’s only natural that he should be in the leadership. There are matters of principle that affect haredi Jewry.”
Another official of Rabbi Auerbach’s court says that Rabbi Shteinman’s people decided to “finish off” the competing group. “The battle is no longer about who’s going to lead the public, but over the division of resources. Just a few weeks ago, rabbis were added to the Council of Torah Sages, and when Rabbi Auerbach asked to present his own candidates, they were disqualified. Why? To make him invisible.”
The building anger among the members of the Jerusalem group led them to take a measure unprecedented in the history of haredi politics – a split in the Degel Hatorah movement, which unites the Lithuanian haredi movement and which, together with Agudat Yisrael (which unites the hasidic groups) comprises United Torah Judaism, which is running for the Knesset.
The Jerusalemites made their threat and carried it out. Several hours before the lists were closed, a new party, named Netzah, was registered. An official of the new party is certain that “if Rabbi Auerbach should finally decide to go to war, a third of Degel Hatorah’s votes will go to us. That can be felt on the ground – Yated Ne’eman has about 7,000 subscriptions, and HaPeles (of the Jerusalem group) already has 3,000. That will be a blow they’ll never forget.”
Radical or normal
Besides the fight over the newspapers, Nati Grossman’s salary and honor, some claim that this is a battle over the face of haredi Jewry for the near future. Yisroel Cohen, who is covering the fight from up close, says, “There’s a struggle over the right way to fight the decrees that loom over the haredi public. Academia, modernization and, above all, the decree of the draft are things that could destroy the haredi public from within. We need to fight against that every day so that in 50 years there won’t be any visible damage.
“So there’s a fight about the proper method. The Jerusalem group is calling for an uncompromising battle – not to report to the recruitment station. Rabbi Shteinman has the same goals, but wants to accomplish them differently. He looks at the secular people and doesn’t want to get into a direct conflict with them. Some people see this approach as compromising and dangerous for the haredi world.”
Rosenstein spoke harshly against what he calls the attempts by the Jerusalem group to paint his rabbi as a compromiser and a liberal, which causes him enormous damage in the haredi world. “Rabbi Shteinman is just as radical in his opinions as Rabbi Shmuel. He opposes academia and the Haredi Nahal army unit, and he also thinks that going to the army is disastrous. But we’re at the eve of elections and this is a subject everyone uses to beat the haredim, so sometimes you have to be smart.”
Rosenstein also seeks to highlight the differences between the rabbis about the draft. “When a secular man serves for three years in the army and a haredi man makes war about showing up for the medical examinations, it’s not smart to do that now. Both rabbis hold the same opinion, that joining the army is forbidden, but are divided as to how to fight it. Over this, haredi Jewry is being destroyed?!”
Rosenstein says that the battle is not ideological at all. “There was an editor at Yated Ne’eman (Nati Grossman) who did whatever he wanted. He used the organ of haredi Jewry for his own needs and attacked people personally. That’s not the rabbi’s way, and that’s why he was dismissed. From that point, a world war began over the pay stub of a single businessman.”
Natural increase, but no gain in Knesset seats
Over the past few days, negotiations between the parties have been going on behind the scenes. But to outside observers, the conflict goes on. In any case, it’s clear to both sides that the sole casualty of the fighting and tension is United Torah Judaism. As in previous election campaigns, the haredi party is hovering around only six seats even though its constituents have a particularly high rate of natural increase.
When the party’s leaders met to discuss the matter several weeks ago, they gave statistics in an effort to explain the situation. On average, United Torah Judaism has about 150,000 voters, which translates to six seats with average voter turnout. Every year about another 10,000 potential voters join the party as they reach voting age. Yet despite these statistics, the party does not gain more seats. How is this possible? According to an official of United Torah Judaism, internal conflicts are to blame.
“Once there were fights with the Ponevezh Yeshiva. Then there was a fight between Litzman and Porush. This year we have the fight with the Jerusalemites,” the official said.
He continues, “It’s likely that people are looking on with contempt and becoming more and more disgusted with politics. You must remember that politics is identified with the Zionist matter, and nobody rushes out to vote unless there are instructions from the rabbis. The more quarrels and the closer to the rabbis it gets, the more people lose trust and stay home.”
Rosenstein claims that the damage to the haredim could be greater. “A quarrel in haredi Jewry is a danger that could lead to drafting yeshiva students and lower budgets. If we don’t join forces against these decrees, it will end badly. Rabbi Shteinman prefers the way of peace and unity. The young people see how the rabbis are being treated with contempt, and the damage is inestimable. What to do? You sit at the same table and talk candidly before it’s too late.”