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Why are Jewish leaders not standing up for the “Charedi Rebel”?

by David Suissa

November 26, 2010 | 1:24 am

Rabbi Haim Amsalem

Rabbi Haim Amsalem

Where is Abraham Foxman when we really need him? Where is Malcolm Hoenlein, David Harris, the American Jewish media, the leaders of Jewish Federations and other prominent Jewish machers who have complained for years about the hijacking of Judaism and Israeli politics by the intolerant and power-hungry Haredim?

Why are they not standing up today in support of the “Charedi Rebel,” Rabbi Haim Amsalem, the Shas MK who is single-handedly taking on the Charedi establishment?

In case you haven’t seen the news today, Amsalem is the Sephardic Rabbi who is being excommunicated because he is trying to confront one of the most divisive forces in Israel today.

Here is what JPost reported this morning:

“Amsalem was recently officially ousted from the party for expressing opinions such as that only a select minority [of Charedim] should dedicate their lives to Torah scholarship, while the others should combine employment with study; that non-Jews in Israel from the Former Soviet Union with Jewish roots should be provided an easier way into converting to Judaism; that everyone should acquire the basic skills for mathematics and a foreign language, as provided in the core curriculum subjects; and that Sephardic Judaism should not bow its head before the Ashkenazi Lithuanian haredi leadership, which Amsalem says Shas is doing in its stances on matters of religion.”

Amsalem is being lynched by his own party because he has the courage to say what democracy-loving Jews have been saying for decades—that it’s high time we stand up to the Charedi intolerance that is corroding Israeli society.

And yet, what are we hearing today from all these democracy-loving Jews who care so much about Israel’s future? Bubkis. Just silence.

But get this. Even without American Jewish support, Amsalem is fighting back. He is refusing to throw in the towel and return his mandate, no matter how much pressure he is under. How cocky and arrogant are his bosses at Shas? Eli Yishai, Shas party leader, when informed that Amsalem might form his own party, said: “Without a rabbinical council of leaders behind him, not even his wife would vote for him.”

There is a deep drama underlying this confrontation. Amsalem represents old-school Sephardic Judaism—strictly Orthodox and Torah-observant but also deeply tolerant and engaged in society. This old-school Sephardic tradition was undermined by the thousands of Sephardic students who were recruited into Lithuanian Yeshivas in the early years of Israel and took on the “Black Hat” traditions of insularity, intolerance and worship of Yeshiva study.

When these Sephardic Jews came into power through the Shas party, their Sephardic label was in name only—they were as “black hat” as their Charedi colleagues.

Amsalem never entered Lithuanian Yeshivas. He stayed in Sephardic yeshivas his whole life, and was thus imbued with the Sephardic values of tolerance and engagement. Because of his strong relationship with the spiritual head of Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, he was able to enter Shas through the back door and thus became its only “pure Sephardic” MK, even while being widely respected for his Torah scholarship in Charedi circles.

This confrontation was bound to happen.

Amsalem is nobody’s patsy. When I met him in Israel last summer and again in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, he made it clear to me that he would go down fighting. He believes deeply in the importance for Israel of promoting and integrating the Sephardic traditions of Torah observance and tolerance. He doesn’t see these two things as mutually exclusive.

He also thinks the people are on his side. The average Sephardi in Israel is nothing like the “black hat” Sephardic Charedi in the Knesset who claim to represent them. But over the years, the people have been seduced and co-opted by free social and educational services, and even superstitious tricks at election season, to stay beholden to their Shas patrons.

Amsalem thinks he can change this dynamic. In the hard-knock world of Israeli politics, all I can say is, good luck.

It’s a shame, though, that hardly anyone here in America is standing up for this courageous man. If Jewish leaders would do so, I bet you they’d think twice in Israel before throwing him under the bus.

Mr Foxman, Mr Harris, Mr Hoelein, Mr Elie Wiesel and you other Israel-loving Jews in America, where is the full-page ad in The New York Times in support of this “Charedi Rebel?”

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