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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