JERUSALEM – As tens of thousands of Jews jammed Jerusalem’s Western Wall Plaza on Tisha B’Av to mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples, leading rabbinical and political figures from Israel’s national religious and haredi streams found themselves embroiled in a war of words over a number of issues that in some instances spurred violent street clashes.
During the past week, three haredi soldiers were attacked in broad daylight in the heart of Jerusalem by haredi hooligans whose actions were not immediately condemned by Ashkenazi haredi leaders or haredi members of Knesset.
One of the soldiers was on his way to a shiur in the Meah Shearim neighborhood when he was attacked and had to be rescued by special police units operating in the area. When the police arrived on the scene they were greeted with chants of “Nazis” and pelted with garbage and stones by some of the residents. Several of the attackers were apprehended, jailed for a short period and released to house arrest.
The lack of public condemnation by haredi leaders and politicians spurred rumors that the spiritual leaders of the IDF’s Nahal Haredi battalion would resign. But Rabbi David Fuchs, who works with Nahal Haredi soldiers, told Kol Israel Radio that those who attacked the soldiers represented a minority faction and that most Nahal Haredi soldiers are treated with dignity in their neighborhoods.
Several haredi soldiers told reporters a different story, however, describing how the violent reactions to their IDF uniforms had necessitated changing into civilian clothing when traveling on trains; others said they could not return to their homes and were forced to spend Shabbat in hostels that cater to haredi soldiers considered outcasts by their families.
Though Aryeh Deri, the leader of the opposition Sephardic Shas Party, publicly condemned the beating of haredi soldiers, he’s had to attempt serious damage control in the wake of epithets hurled by the party’s spiritual leaders at Naftali Bennett and Rabbi Shai Piron of, respectively, the Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid parties.
Bennett and Piron, who have been at the forefront in encouraging the universal army draft, changing the criteria for haredi yeshiva funding and pushing for the election of Religious Zionist Rabbi David Stav to the post of Asheknazi chief rabbi, were lambasted by Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef several weeks ago, as was Rabbi Stav himself.
In his remarks last month, Rabbi Yosef described Rabbi Stav as “an evil man” and warned that appointing him to the Chief Rabbinate would be like bringing idolatry into the Temple.
The Rabbinical Council of America, the largest organization of Orthodox rabbis in the U.S., immediately responded with sharp criticism of Rabbi Yosef. The top two RCA officials, Rabbis Shmuel Goldin and Leonard Matanky, wrote that they “trembled upon hearing the terrible things Rabbi Ovadia Yosef said in regards to [Rabbi Stav’s] honor” and were equally disturbed by the verbal and physical assault that same weekend on Rabbi Stav by haredi teens during the wedding of the daughter of the Kotel Rav, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz.
Making an already volatile situation worse, this past weekend a senior member of Shas’s Council of Torah Sages likened Bennett and all Religious Zionists to Amalek, religious shorthand for eternal enemies of the Jewish people.
In a sermon delivered Saturday night as Rabbi Yosef sat beside him, Rabbi Shalom Cohen declared that “as long as there are knit kippot, the divine throne is not whole. That’s Amalek. When will the throne be whole? When there is no knit kippah.”
Rabbi Cohen then asked, “Are these people even Jews? We would be unfortunate to end up with a [chief] rabbi who wears a knitted kippah.”
Bennett lashed out at Rabbi Cohen on his Facebook page: “Shame on you. For those who don’t know, Amalek is an expression referring to someone who must be wiped off the face of the earth. No less. At this very moment, thousands of knit-kippah wearers are standing guard from the Syrian border to the Egyptian, from brigade commanders down to the lowliest soldiers, and are [defending] even the honorable rabbi.
“These days, the Habayit Hayehudi Party is working tirelessly to lessen the damage to the world of Torah from government bills forcing haredi men to work and enlist in the military. And yet we are called Amalek.”
Habayit Hayehudi MK and Minister of Pensioner Affairs Uri Orbach told The Jewish Press, “The incitement against our party and knitted kippah Religious Zionists by the leaders of Shas is nothing new. They’ve always uttered radical stuff. And Rabbi Cohen said exactly what Rabbi Yosef wants to hear.
“The irony is that many of Shas’s constituents are not radicals and are more closely affiliated with Religious Zionists. The core of their anger is based strictly on the fact that people like Aryeh Deri and his predecessor, Eli Yishai, are no longer part of the government coalition. They hate being in the opposition and are frustrated that they are no longer in a position to promote their own agendas.
“It’s not pleasant to hear these things, but we are trying to find a way to work with everyone without hateful behavior.”