Ben-Gurion Of The Orthodox? A Tolerance-Preaching Rabbi Shakes Up Israeli Politics

Algerian-born, French-bred Haim Amsalem is a member of the Knesset, and now the sworn enemy of the ultra-orthodox Shas party that he helped found.

Rabbi Haim Amsalem
Rabbi Haim Amsalem
Laurent Zecchini

JERUSALEM - It’s easy to see why Haim Amsalem needs a bodyguard, and why his party (Am Shalem) features the motto: “The Choice of the Brave.”

The rabbi uses public appearances to call on Israel's ultra-orthodox to leave their ghettos, study such unholy materials as mathematics, science, English and history, stop avoiding their national military service and free themselves from a life of poverty and ignorance.

For the Haredim ("God-fearers") ultra-orthodox, these can only be the words of a dangerous revolutionary and enemy of the faith, who should be excommunicated. Done: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardi Chief Great Rabbi of Israel, spiritual leader of the ultra-orthodox party Shas, took care of that not long ago.

Yosef had few other options, unable as he was to shut Amsalem up, or to appease the virulent hatred toward him of Aryeh Deri and Eli Yishai – two Shas leaders. During the campaign leading up to Israel's legislative elections this week, Amsalem, a member of the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, has been busy preaching tolerance and open-mindedness on religious grounds. Shas, of which he was originally a founding member, worries that he could well poach from their bastion of ultra-orthodox votes, and undercut their attempts to gain leverage inside the next rightist coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Of course I receive physical threats, usually over the phone,” Amsalem notes. But he is a true believer, who withstands insulting labels like the “seed of Amalek,” this enemy of the Jews who, according to Exodus, attacked the Hebrews in Sinai. He’s had to watch his son being kicked out of an ultra-orthodox yeshiva school, and see his synagogue stand empty due to a boycott. He didn’t budge when his book, In the Name of Reason, was publicly burned because of its accusations against Shas and its leaders.

Haim Amsalem was born in Algeria 54 years ago from Moroccan parents. “Drenched in French culture,” he grew up in Lyon, studied in Israel, became Geneva’s rabbi and has written “thirty books about Talmudic subjects.”

Because he’s “seen the world,” Amsalem says he can offer this insight: "The Sephardi Judaism of the Middle East used to be open, tolerant and pragmatic, obeying the Halacha (Jewish law), it was accepting of the foreigner and tried to adapt to the modern world," he says. "This culture is about to disappear in Israel to make way for the Lithuanians’ extremist, racist, non-Zionist approach, and it’s a tragedy!”

iPhones and the "New Orthodox"

Here’s the enemy in his eyes: the non-Hasidic branch of the ultra-orthodox movement, the "Ashkenazi Lithuanian" who, according to Amsalem, is taking over the soul of Shas, which was born as a Sephardic political movement. He notes that Shas party leader Eli Yishai sends his children to Lithuanian yeshiva schools where Yiddish is taught; likewise all those around Rabbi Yosef were educated at Ashkenazi Yeshivots.

Is this just an internal ultra-orthodox feud? Only in appearance.

The man who wants to be the David “Ben-Gurion of the Haredim,” a reference to modern Israel's founding father, feels the real problem is elsewhere: “Shas teaches obscurantism. If you don’t work, you condemn yourself to poverty; deprive yourself of education and you’ll witness a closed and extremist society; refusing to do the national (military) service is anti-Zionist!”

He accuses the politicians from Shas for keeping the ultra-orthodox community sheltered, in order to keep it on a leash, financially, through its network of schools, and politically as well.

“I said that we need to think about the thousands of ultra-orthodox youngsters in the street -- our youth is lost. Shas, party of the poor? It’s the opposite: they maintain poverty by manipulating their souls!” It's a harsh accusation. But it’s true that if 85% of the ultra-orthodox population vote for Shas and the Ashkenazi formation of Torah’s United Judaism, it’s also because the Talmudic students receive subsidies from the state of Israel.

It doesn’t make the poverty problem (56%) of the Haredim go away. It’s another subject of concern in the rabbinic community: the lack of correlation between their community’s demographic development and its electoral weight. The ultra-orthodox represent about 10% of the Israeli population, meaning 900,000 people. They grow 6% every year while the national average reaches just 2%.

Despite this fact, Shas and another alliance of religious political parties, the United Torah Judaism, have had trouble gaining further traction in electoral support. The politicians, as well as spiritual leaders like Rabbi Yosef, insist that voting for Shas is a “religious duty." But several mostly right-wing secular parties have been making headway amongst the iPhone-toting “New Orthodox,” who are less inclined to commit their lives to the study of the Torah and don't consider their wives as house servants.

As for Haim Amsalem, nearly 76% of Israelis overall approve of his ideas, for they are refreshingly modern. But converting such support into votes at the polls is the hardest part for this Ben-Gurion in a black hat.

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A Mother In Spain Denied Child Custody Because She Lives In Rural Area

A court in Spain usurps custody of the one-year-old boy living with his mother in the "deep" part of the Galicia region, forced to instead live with his father in the southern city of Marbella, which the judge says is "cosmopolitan" with good schools and medical care. Women's rights groups have taken up the mother's case.

A child in Galician countryside

Laure Gautherin

A Spanish court has ordered the withdrawal of a mother's custody of her one-year-old boy because she is living in the countryside in northwestern Spain, where the judge says the child won't have "opportunities for the proper development of his personality."

The case, reported Monday in La Voz de Galicia, has sparked outrage from a women's rights association but has also set off reactions from politicians of different stripes across the province of Galicia, defending the values of rural life.

Judge María Belén Ureña Carazo, of the family court of Marbella, a city on the southern coast of 141,000 people, has ordered the toddler to stay with father who lives in the city rather than with his mother because she was living in "deep Galicia" where the child would lack opportunities to "grow up in a happy environment."

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - October 25, 2021

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - Monday 25 October, 2021

La Voz de Galicia

Better in a "cosmopolitan" city?

The judge said Marbella, where the father lives, was a "cosmopolitan city" with "a good hospital" as well as "all kinds of schools" and thus provided a better environment for the child to thrive.

The mother has submitted a formal complaint to the General Council of the Judiciary that the family court magistrate had acted with "absolute contempt," her lawyer told La Voz de Galicia.

The mother quickly accumulated support from local politicians and civic organizations. The Clara Campoamor association described the judge's arguments as offensive, intolerable and typical of "an ignorant person who has not traveled much."

The Xunta de Galicia, the regional government, has addressed the case, saying that any place in Galicia meets the conditions to educate a minor. The Socialist party politician Pablo Arangüena tweeted that "it would not hurt part of the judiciary to spend a summer in Galicia."

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