Brooklyn-bred Hasid Takes Position of Power in Israel

By Nathaniel Popper

Published January 28, 2005, issue of January 28, 2005.
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JERUSALEM — While negotiations were under way to form Ariel Sharon’s new governing coalition earlier this month, most observers expected the worst infighting to come from hawks within Sharon’s own Likud Party.

As it happened, the most damaging feud erupted not in the Likud but within the coalition’s junior partner, United Torah Judaism, a tiny ultra-Orthodox party with only five seats in the 120-member Knesset. Indeed, once the dust had settled, the tiny caucus had split in two.

At the center of the controversy was Ya’akov Litzman, a Brooklyn-bred Hasidic Jew who heads Torah Judaism’s larger faction, Agudat Yisrael, the political voice of Israel’s Hasidic community. Litzman had incurred the wrath of the party’s smaller, non-Hasidic wing, the two-man Degel Hatorah faction, by accepting the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee as part of the coalition deal.

Degel Hatorah’s rabbinic mentor, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, had authorized the party to enter the coalition only for a three-month trial period, with no jobs attached. When Litzman insisted on taking the powerful finance post, Elyashiv ordered his followers to break up the Torah Judaism alliance.

The defiance was characteristic of Litzman. A longtime adviser to the grand rabbi of Israel’s largest Hasidic community, the Gerer rebbe, Litzman has emerged in the last decade as one of the most powerful figures in Israeli politics.

By taking on the finance post, he also has become, unexpectedly, perhaps the most powerful American immigrant in Israeli politics, following in a line that includes Golda Meir and Moshe Arens.

Litzman was born in 1948 to Polish parents in a displaced person’s camp in Germany. The family immigrated to the Boro Park section of Brooklyn when Litzman was 2. He says he doesn’t remember much from his American childhood beyond his Torah studies, which he continued after he moved to Israel at age 17.

After a brief stint working at an Orthodox girls school, he was pulled into the political orbit of his religious mentor, Rabbi Simcha-Bunim Alter, then the rebbe of the Gerer Hasidim. Over time, Litzman become known as the Gerer rebbe’s right-hand man and behind-the-scenes political fixer. He continued in that role after 1992, when the elder Alter died and his younger brother, Ya’akov Aryeh Alter, became rebbe.

It was only in 1999 that Alter asked Litzman to give up his American citizenship and join the Agudat Yisrael slate for that year’s Knesset elections. Like other haredi politicians, Litzman does not operate as an independent agent, but rather serves as the political voice of his rebbe. Litzman says that while they do not consult on every small political move, he and the rebbe talk daily.

The adherence of each Torah Judaism lawmaker to his own rabbinic mentor makes for friction when they try to negotiate deals or enter alliances. The conflicting loyalties are aggravated by ongoing tension between the party’s Hasidic and non-Hasidic wings, essentially a continuation of a theological feud within Orthodoxy that began in Eastern Europe when Hasidism was born two centuries ago.

The conflicting political and religious claims on Litzman and his colleagues underlie much of the recent tension within his party. Control of the Knesset Finance Committee was part of a larger coalition deal that included specific promises of funds for Orthodox schools and other causes. The deal was approved this past December by the Gerer rebbe, who chairs Agudat Yisrael’s governing body, the Council of Torah Sages. Elyashiv, however, withheld approval until early January, insisting on a string of additional promises from Sharon. The most important was a rollback of planned educational reforms that would impose secular standards on Orthodox schools.

After accepting the deal, Elyashiv ordered the Torah Judaism lawmakers to enter the coalition only for a three-month trial, to see if Sharon had kept his promises.

However, Litzman refused to wait.

The political leader of Degel Hatorah, lawmaker Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, told the Forward that the disputes between the two wings of United Torah Judaism have been persistent since the alliance was formed 14 years ago. Agudat Yisrael always has held the majority in the party, and Ravitz said they have not done well at making room for Degel Hatorah. But, Ravitz said, the real problem was Litzman. “Litzman can’t accept the fact that he is not the dictator. They are not used to a modern kind of discussion between two groups.”

The tension increased this past Monday, when Elyashiv approved a rabbinic court proceeding against Litzman and the other Agudat Yisrael lawmakers for their intransigence.

Litzman, interviewed in his office in an austere apartment building just outside Jerusalem’s Old City, was gruffly dismissive of the criticism. Ravitz, he said, “knows I listen to the [Gerer rebbe].”

Litzman said that Ravitz “has done a very big mistake” in breaking up United Torah Judaism. “We are stronger, we are bigger, we have more votes.”

Both halves of the party are staying in the Sharon government. Ultra-Orthodox politicians have been under intense pressure from their constituents over the last two years, as they languished in opposition and saw their community’s government financing steadily slashed. Litzman is determined to reverse the cuts.

Sharon’s last government was an alliance between the Likud, the militantly secularist Shinui and two smaller parties of the pro-settler right. Shinui had insisted on a series of reforms, including reduction of child subsidies that encourage large families, an ultra-Orthodox mainstay, as well as cuts in yeshiva stipends that allow Orthodox men to study full time for years.

To restore these programs, Litzman has entered a governing coalition whose overarching purpose is to implement Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan, which the Gerer rebbe has opposed in the past. When Litzman and his ultra-Orthodox colleagues joined the coalition, there were sharp protests from settler groups, whose roots are in Modern Orthodoxy. Settlers said Litzman had sold out the unity of the holy land in order to secure yeshiva budgets.

Asked about the protests, Litzman noted that the pro-settler parties, while serving in the last coalition, had not stood up for his community when its privileges were whittled away by Shinui reforms. “I didn’t see nobody making any demonstrations that somebody should help us,” he said.

Litzman said that in some respects, he envies the low profile the ultra-Orthodox community in the United States has been able to retain by staying out of politics. He said that the media attention, ironically, has made for more misrepresentations and misunderstandings of the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel than in the United States.

But he said he would never go back to the United States. “The world is standing on Torah,” he said, “and there’s no bigger place for Torah than Israel.”

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