Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, the eighth leader of the Gur Hasidic sect, recently invited his follower Yitzhak Goldknopf to his humble apartment to inform him that he was to represent the group in the next Knesset.
Alter, known as the Gur Rabbi, also directs the group’s political arm, the Agudat Yisrael party, one of two partners making up the United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party. The Gur Rabbi decreed in 1999 that the party would join the government led by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, only to order the party to quit the government 18 months hence and bring about its collapse.
The Gur sect is deeply divided these days, but its political power as the largest and most influential Hasidic sect in Israel remains undiminished. It was rocked by the recent resignation of its leading Knesset representative, Rabbi Yaakov Litzman, who agreed to step down under a plea agreement to get criminal charges dropped.
Litzman is being replaced in the top UTJ role by a representative of the Vizhnitz Hasidic sect, Rabbi Yaakov Tessler, under a rotation arrangement between Agudat Yisrael and its on-again, off-again UTJ rival, Degel HaTorah. The Gur leadership is deeply unhappy about having to relinquish its long-held top slot in the UTJ and will presumably try to bring about the government’s collapse in order to have new elections, send its new man into the Knesset and thus regain its primacy in UTJ.
Goldknopf’s appointment doubly shocking because it meant that Litzman, his right hand in the Knesset for 20 years, was stepping down. It also dashed the hopes of those who aspired to step into his shoes — especially top candidate Rabbi Yitzhak Yehuda Shapira. Shapira is related to Alter by marriage and the son of former Agudat Yisrael leader Rabbi Avraham Shapira.
Shapira is an Israeli citizen but resides in London, where he was awarded a royal title in 2014 for strengthening ties between the United Kingdom and its ultra-Orthodox community. In preparation for the coveted Knesset position, Shapira has been making political moves in Israel, including his successful bid for reconciliation between the Gur sect community in Arad and the town’s mayor, Nissan Ben-Hamo. He also undertook negotiations with the current government on a deal that would stop Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel's campaign to reform the so-called kosher cell phone monopoly of the ultra-Orthodox leadership in return for UTJ support of government appointments.
But when a photo emerged of him sitting down for negotiations on the highly sensitive issue with Foreign Minister Minister Yair Lapid, a figure reviled by many in the ultra-Orthodox community for his anti-clerical positions, his opponents had what they needed to bury Shapira’s appointment before it saw the light of day.
In stepped Goldknopf, a familiar figure in the ultra-Orthodox community due to a high-profile position he created for himself as chair of the Committee for the Sanctity of the Sabbath. The one-man committee has fought hard for restrictions in the Israeli public space, for example forcing the national air carrier El Al to halt all its Saturday flights. At the wedding of one of the rabbi’s grandsons, Goldknopf presented Alter with a cake in the shape of an airplane, getting a wide smile in return.
Goldknopf also took on the ultra-Orthodox supermarket chain Shefa Shuk over its highly popular Sabbath-violating AM-PM convenience store chain. His efforts were unsuccessful, but they did land him a top spot in the inner sanctum of the Gur Rabbi, where all substantive decisions are made.
Goldknopf, 73, heads an educational business empire, having taken the small kindergarten and daycare chain in Jerusalem that he inherited from his father and turned it into a prosperous nationwide chain of hundreds of early educational centers, as well as medical clinics and schools for special needs children.
He is notorious for his draconian management style, including alleged violations of the rights of thousands of ultra-Orthodox women employed as kindergarten teachers and aides.
To be fair, Goldknopf did not create the system, but he make it more sophisticated, taking advantage of the Education Ministry’s disinterest in supervising ultra-Orthodox schools. The government has handed over this hot potato to various nongovernmental organizations, through which it funnels funding. Most of them are headed by influential figures in the ultra-Orthodox community, such as Knesset members and members of local town councils, for whom these positions provide a bounty of budgets and jobs. As a result of this indirect process, teachers employed by ultra-Orthodox associations are often paid half what state workers make.
In recent years, these teachers have taken their protest to the Knesset, with little success. Even efforts to unionize under the Histadrut labor federation were unsuccessful. When some of the teachers appealed to Goldknopf himself, he refused to entertain their demands, asking one of the them, “What, you want your pay to be higher than that of the director general?”
Goldknopf is undoubtedly pragmatic and skilled at networking. Unlike Litzman, who has publicly taken on leading figures in his community and beyond, Goldknopf makes his moves behind the scenes and gets results.
Goldknopf is considered an effective negotiator and peacemaker between warring sects. He recently intervened in a highly publicized spat between the Gur leadership and Knesset member Rabbi Meir Porush, who accused it of undermining his bid for the Jerusalem mayorship. Many within the Gur community therefore welcome his appointment as a sure path to restoring it as the uncontested leader of Hasidic Judaism.
While his enemies are likely hoping for a misstep, it is important to remember that just as the Gur Rabbi removed Litzman from politics despite his objections, the political fate and career of his successor also depends solely on Alter. Goldknof's enemies know that their efforts against him will take place not within the party or other ultra-Orthodox institutions, but within the inner circle of the Gur Rabbi.