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Haim Amsalem was the Shas politician who dared speak the unspeakable: Haredim should work and not rely on state funds. He also criticized the strict Haredi requirements for conversion to Judaism, and Haredi refusal to undertake national service.
The party expelled him two years ago for taking these positions. “There are only two ways to leave Shas,” he quipped some time afterwards. “Sit in jail or voice your own opinions.”
Amsalem set up his own party, Am Shalem — chosen to sound like his name but also because it means “Whole Nation.”
Amsalem, 53, describes himself as “a Jew, a Haredi and a Zionist.” In contrast to other Haredi politicians who avoid showing patriotism towards the State of Israel for ideological reasons, he calls it “our beloved state.”
He wants to take practical steps to integrate Haredim, currently one of Israel’s poorest populations, into the workforce. He suggests programs to employ them in high tech, as well as the establishment of an institution like New York’s Yeshiva University that will combine religious study with academic degrees.
Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University and expert on religious politics, said that Amsalem is giving a voice to the “big revolution” that is taking place among Haredim, with many becoming more open to the idea of secular study.
Since the last elections, secular and religious citizens have clashed over ultra-Orthodox-favored moves such as attempting to implement gender segregation in public spaces. Amsalem publicly opposes such attempts.
Together with the positions that led to his expulsion from Shas, this has won him admirers outside the Haredi community. Haaretz’s economic affairs correspondent Nehemia Shtrasler crowned him “the most courageous man in Israel politics,” who brings a “breath of fresh air” to the scene. The latest polls indicate that enough voters agree, and likely will send him into Knesset along with two other candidates from his list.