Internal haredi crisis: Lithuanians against Sephardim

Knesset address by United Torah Judaism MK against Shas' joining of World Zionist Organization perceived as personal attack on Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, igniting war between two camps, including graffiti and press

Ynet News, Israel/January 29, 2010

The Ashkenazi-Sephardic conflict has re-emerged recently over Shas's joining of the World Zionist Organization.

Party members stressed that the move was purely "procedural," however a battle was ignited when Knesset Member Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) made a targeted verbal attack against the movement from the Knesset podium. Nearly a week has gone by and there's no sign of the fight slowing down.

The dispute began when Gafni, during an address at the Knesset plenum, ferociously slammed the Mizrahi-haredi movement's association with the Zionist body, which he deemed was controlled by members of the Reform movement.

"What do they have there at the Zionist organization that they need to sit alongside the greatest haters of religion? They have jobs!" he claimed. "Apparently jobs are more important that the dearest thing to the religious Judaism, the dearest thing in the sacred Torah…I'm ashamed today as a haredi Knesset member."

The statements were perceived in Shas as an unprecedented attack on its spiritual leadership, namely Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who personally authorized the decision to join the World Zionist Organization. Shas Director-General and Minister of Religious Services Yakov Margi issued a harsh condemnation in response.

Shas's Knesset faction also decided to boycott MK Gafni and cut off all contact with him until he apologizes to Rabbi Yosef. In a radio interview Margi noted that the rabbi had been informed of the incident and was "outraged."

The dispute also manifested itself in the haredi streets in a first-of-its-kind graffiti war. The words "Gafni is evil" were sprayed in the Shabbat square in addition to other harsh inscriptions all over Jerusalem. Those were countered in the city of Bnei Brak with a graffiti reading "Gafni, stand strong."

War in press

The haredi newspapers also enlisted in the war, with the Lithuanian journal Yated Ne'eman devoting the weekend's cover to an editorial concerning the dispute. Sources at Degel Hatorah claimed that the order to publish the article was given by Lithuanian leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.

"The unprecedented decision (of joining the World Zionist Organization) is turning one's back to basic and essential conventions of the haredi Judaism of the last 100 years," the article noted.

The article further stressed that Shas's decision goes against the historic ultra-Orthodox's principle of not cooperating with those "whose sole purpose is imparting Zionist and national ideas in an effort to create a 'new Judaism' wholly disconnected from the halacha."

The paper also stated that "the Mizrahists separated themselves from the entire haredi public and turned into a compromising hybrid movement."

Shas's journal Yom Leyom is working on a retaliation. Editor Yitzhak Kakon said in a radio interview that he received orders to prepare a series of exposés against the Lithuanian elements involved in the affair.

"They lighted a candle and we started a fire," he said and added, "The materials to be exposed will shame their sector and may Gafni pay for his statements with his job."

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