Rabbi MK Haim Amsalem, chairman of the Am Shalem Party, has been having a frustrating relationship in the last few weeks with the Knesset’s (Israeli Parliament) minimum-vote threshold. After he exceeded it in the past with three mandates and emerged as a new trend, mainly among Israel’s secular population, new players entered the playing field and Amsalem has started to lose momentum. But even if the rabbi doesn't find himself in the next Knesset, he is undoubtedly one of the interesting phenomena of the 2013 elections.
The current election campaign is full of absurdities, and Amsalem’s support-base is one of them. Amsalem was dismissed from the ultra-Orthodox Shas movement about two years ago after he rebelled against the main elements of its platform and, even worse — against its leaders. However, contrary to what one might presume, Amsalem does not constitute a threat against his former political bastion; the in-depth polls show that he does not challenge Shas’ electorate of Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Jews. Instead, he plays mainly in the secular Center-Left field in which he constitutes another breakaway faction, in addition to the many that already exist.
A poll recently conducted by the Knesset Channel found that about 45% of Amsalem’s supporters are secular, about 31% are traditional, 22% national-religious and only 2% are ultra-Orthodox. How, we ask, has this ultra-Orthodox rabbi born in Algiers, who embodied the conservative right-wing mindset until recently — how has he become the hit of the secular public, most of whom are affluent Tel Aviv residents?
Amsalem is blessed with impressive rhetorical skills that are music to (mainly) secular ears. According to Amsalem, hundreds of thousands of Shas voters are held captive by a political leadership that doesn’t really care about them and intentionally perpetuates their ignorance and poverty. Amsalem warns those voters that if they continue to shirk army duty, to oppose the “core studies” (the core study program designates the spheres of knowledge that must be taught in all educational facilities in Israel, including the ultra-Orthodox sector) and not go to work — they inflict a poverty-stricken future on their children and grandchildren too. He sounds like the secular-Israeli dream: fluent and incisive, up-to-date and courageous. He endeared himself to many in Israel’s leading commercial sectors who support him. In their eyes, he is a prudent, enlightened ultra-Orthodox Jew who thinks like they do. He became a welcome guest at Tel Aviv bars and in secular campuses. A star.
Not long ago, I heard him being interviewed and he was garnering enthusiastic applause from a secular audience at an elections panel in Rishon Letzion. The participants were really excited to hear Amsalem tell them about his young son, Yaakov, who serves in a combat unit, and is supposed to come home for the Shabbat leave.
Only a few days remain before elections and there is a real possibility that Amsalem may remain outside the Knesset, after all. But even in this scenario he will still be considered a phenomenon in Israeli public, mainly due to the courage he demonstrated in challenging his original party, Shas.
In spite of his understandable frustration at the results of recent polls, Amsalem exudes self-confidence in an interview with Al Monitor and is still convinced that there will be an election surprise.
Al-Monitor: It seems that you lost your positive momentum. That ultimately, you represent a protest-vote for secular Jews who connect to your anti-ultra-Orthodox agenda.
Haim Amsalem: I don’t get excited over polls. I see what goes on around me. I meet with people, I circulate a lot, and the situation is different. I knew that the secular Jews would come first, that was the first wave; the next wave that already started, is that of the traditional Jews. The last wave, of the ultra-Orthodox, will arrive very close to the elections, when they understand that the train is leaving the station.
Al-Monitor: You really expect a wave of ultra-Orthodox [voters]?
Haim Amsalem: I feel that something has started to happen over the last two weeks, that no one expected to happen among the ultra-Orthodox: they are starting to ask about what I said, they are expressing interest. For two years already I have been telling them that if they want to continue to be underprivileged and poor, then they should continue to vote for those who set them up [the reference is to the Shas leaders]. If you want to listen to me and get out of this dependence on ultra-Orthodox politicos who cynically exploit you, then I am here for you.
I also fight for the undecided voters of the political Center. True, they come from Tel Aviv, but they also come from Netivot [southern city] and other places. That is the same public that feels that I brought something new, original, courageous to politics.
The religious corruption and deal-making has transformed religion into something repulsive in the eyes of those who aren’t believers. It is not fair and not correct to transform all of the religion to a bunch of thieves. I propose another path. If I am given enough power, I will be minister of religion in Netanyahu’s government.”
Al-Monitor: But aren’t you less attractive to the ultra-Orthodox?
Haim Amsalem: Not true. That is what the long arm of Shas, under Aryeh Deri’s tutelage, tries to make everyone think, but the public doesn’t buy it. Deri is in great distress and I understand it, because any result he will bring [to the party] under 10 mandates – will be the end of him. I know explicitly that I am harming them.
Rabbi Amsalem expresses severe criticism of the party to which he belonged since 2006. “Shas is a virtual party and once the Sephardim will open their eyes, they will understand this. Shas is a bubble that made them more destitute, more needy, more ignorant — that caused them to lose their identity.
“They fought me in the ultra-Orthodox press, but they built me up. They thought that I don’t have anything to say to the ultra-Orthodox community, but I have a lot to say. Many of the young people who bought my book Hatevunah, that is considered controversial in the yeshivas [rabbinical colleges] — the book opened their eyes. Suddenly along came someone who spoke the truth. How long can you make a fool out of people?”
Al-Monitor: On the other hand, people in the center-left are discovering that you are actually right-wing, and they are deserting you. Where are you really situated on the left-right political axis?
Haim Amsalem: I think that today, there is not an essential difference between right and left. Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he is in favor of two states for two nations. I created an independent path not because of these matters but because of the issues that consumed me, like finding solutions to the conversion problem that affects hundreds of thousands people. I sit in the middle of the center. I don’t want to get into the definition of left and right. Everyone knows that my struggle was over social issues, I never fought over other issues.
Al-Monitor: Nevertheless, your potential voters will want to know how you will act with regards to political issues, if you sit in a Netanyahu government.
Haim Amsalem: First of all, if only we had a real partner. Now there isn’t one, and to tell you the truth it doesn’t concern me at the moment. If I will have to deal with that, I will employ the wisdom of Spanish-Jewry: their tradition of moderation that is correct for all issues, including political ones.
Al-Monitor: In other words, you will be flexible?
Haim Amsalem: Absolutely, if I believe that is the right thing to do. I am a moderate centrist and if Netanyahu will want to adopt courageous political tactics, he’ll find a partner in me. I won’t put spokes in his wheels.
It must be said in Amsalem’s favor that he does not even try to pretend that he is interested in political issues. He answers in brief, and prefers to return the conversation to terra firma as far as he is concerned — issues connected to conversion and the disservice caused by Shas to the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox.
Until two years ago, Amsalem was an anonymous Shas MK. Then the media exposed the Immanuel affair, in which Shas-affiliated Sephardi girls were segregated by a partition from fellow Ashkenazi schoolmates in an ultra-Orthodox school for girls. Shas leadership ignored the affair. Amsalem decided not to keep silent. He took up a position on the media and legal front against the discrimination, criticized Shas Chairman Eli Yishai and his No. 2, Ariel Attias, with the argument that they send their children to Ashkenazi schools while simultaneously abandoning their Sephardi constituency. Later on, he was dismissed from Shas and adopted an independent path. When he gained popularity, he established the Am Shalem party.
This week [Jan. 6-11] the battlefield burned again between Rabbi Amsalem and Shas. In other words, Amsalem attacked and Shas ignored him. The background was the conversion campaign launched by Shas, featuring the provocative broadcast of a wedding shown in the early days [of the election commercials] that was disqualified by the Central Elections Committee. The commercial, called “Press Star for Conversion,” showed a stereotypical wedding ceremony between a “naïve Sephardi” and a “Russian blonde,” who is “converted” through a faxed notification.
Al-Monitor: What did you think about the broadcast?
Haim Amsalem: I am still in shock. This is blatant racism. This is the brain of Aryeh Deri, who only a week ago talked about blacks and whites and then pulled out the ethnicity card again. So what is he saying about the Russian public? That they are all non-Jews? That borders on incitement.
One of my biggest struggles was when I came and said that there are almost 400,000 human beings among us who lack a Jewish identity and we aren’t finding solutions for them. In Shas they prefer to adopt extreme rabbinical religious rulings, causing much hardship and misery. I say that we cannot allow ourselves not to convert most of them. I present solutions based on halacha (religious law).
Amsalem adds, In Shas they understand that this is one of the good tidings that I bring, and this is their answer: A racist, offensive broadcast, product of Aryeh Deri’s school of thought; he acts like a bull in a china shop. They paint everyone who is not a Shas member as non-Jewish and don’t even know that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who served in the past in rabbinical conversion positions, used to convert them.
Al-Monitor: In your opinion, do they take advantage of the Rabbi?
Haim Amsalem: It wouldn’t hurt them to exhibit a little humanity and compassion toward the Rabbi, a man who is a giant in Jewish halacha but, at his advanced age, is not involved in what takes place in the party. In his old age, his role is to continue to study Torah, but they have no mercy and set him up in the front lines. They make use of him. He became their shield, and they harm him.
Al-Monitor: Didn’t you say that Deri had changed?
Haim Amsalem: I thought that he had changed. I was wrong. I watch the election broadcasts, and I would have expected a different approach. The whole story of whipping out the ethnicity card — is not right. He talks about discrimination and poverty, but he does not suggest how to crush them. Shas in favor of the poor? That is a sad joke. I would say that Shas makes sure to perpetuate the poverty cycle.
Al-Monitor: You attack the Shas leadership a lot, but they do not respond. Is that insulting?
Haim Amsalem: See how they look, and how I look. Shas is an Ashkenazi party with an Ashkenazic character. So they should stop painting themselves as real Sephardic Jews. The moment the public will come to their senses, Shas will be finished and it will happen. Shas leadership continues to grovel in front of Ashkenazim. They send their children to study in Ashkenazic institutions, and the common-folk children to Shas schools. I come and tear off the mask from their faces. I tell the Shas electorate, "they are deceiving you, wake up."
Mazal Mualem started her journalistic career during her military service, where she was assigned to the Bamachane army weekly newspaper. After her studies, she worked for the second leading Israeli daily Maariv. In 1998 she joined Haaretz, covering local governance, and later, she was appointed chief political analyst of the paper. After 12 years with Haaretz, she returned to Maariv as their chief political analyst.