Rabbi Haim Amsalem is standing as a party of one in the forthcoming Israeli elections (photo: Nati Shohat)
The most important thing North African Jews brought to Israel was not dancing or baclava, but moderation, argues Rabbi Haim Amsalem. That’s why he broke away from the ‘Lithuanians’ of the ultra-orthodox Shas party to form a party of one. Important article by Matti Friedman in The Times of Israel (with thanks: Lily)
Amsalem was born in 1959 in the Mediterranean port of Oran, Algeria, and moved to France as a child, part of the great 20th-century
exodus of Jews from Islamic countries. From there his parents took him
to Israel, where he attended yeshivas in Bnei Brak, a religious town on
the outskirts of Tel Aviv, and later became a rabbi. That status got him
a draft exemption, and he never served in the army.
After rabbinic posts around Israel and two
years as the chief Sephardic rabbi in Geneva, Switzerland, Amsalem
returned to Israel in 2006 and was given a spot on the Shas slate in
that year’s election. The party’s list is decided by a council of
religious scholars headed by Ovadia Yosef, who had ordained Amsalem as a
rabbi years before, and he had the endorsement of other prominent
Amsalem turned to politics because he
realized, he said this week, that “today, in the modern world, the
influence of rabbis is marginal.”
“I saw that if I wanted to cause revolutions
or bring change, I would have to go where such things are done. In
Israel, that place is the Knesset.”
Shas would soon have reason to regret the choice. Perhaps the key event in Amsalem’s rebellion
began with a 2008 High Court appeal filed by parents at aschool for girls in Immanuel, an ultra-Orthodox settlement in the West Bank. The
parents, Mizrahi Jews, showed in court that their daughters faced
discrimination from Ashkenazi administrators and parents who did not
want their children mixing with Mizrahi girls.
Shas had been founded to restore the pride of
Mizrahi Jews, who have a long tradition of pragmatism and religious
moderation. But Shas leaders had long since come into the orbit of the
Ashkenazi rabbis who dominate the yeshiva world — “Lithuanians,” in
ultra-Orthodox parlance — and had drifted toward their model of
unemployment, draft evasion and harsh interpretations of religious law.
Shas leaders tended to send their children to Ashkenazi schools, which
are generally considered more prestigious.The parents from Immanuel,
looking for support, encountered a cold shoulder from Shas: The party of
Mizrahi religious pride, it was clear, did not to want to rock the
Amsalem, infuriated, broke ranks and publicly
supported the parents. The case garnered intense media interest, and the
Mizrahi parents won the legal battle.
Shas leaders, Amsalem said, had “betrayed their voters.”
“They served and still serve the Lithuanian
Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox ideology, and this ideology embraces
discrimination,” he said.
His former party “once had a reason to exist,
but failed. It was created first of all to fight discrimination. It did a
thousand other things, but not that.”
The final break was not long in coming.
Amsalem openly embraced the label “Zionist,” for example, claiming there
was no contradiction between that and ultra-Orthodoxy.
“What is ultra-Orthodoxy? Just being a little more stringent in observing the law. They say, ‘You’re a Zionist, oy vey, oy vey.’ What’s the big deal?” he said. When he had his picture taken this week, Amsalem made sure his Israeli flag was in the frame.
The sweeping military exemption for yeshiva
students — the key political issue for the ultra-Orthodox parties, which
have termed it a “matter of life and death” — should be junked, he
said. Students who excel at Torah studies should be allowed to learn;
there are “very few” such students, he said. The rest must serve.
Behind Amsalem’s desk is a painted portrait of
a white-bearded man in the traditional garb of a Middle Eastern rabbi.
The man is his father, David Amsalem, a rabbi in Morocco and Algeria.
His father, Amsalem says, was never paid for his rabbinic work and made
his money in business. In his father’s eyes, Jewish learning and
teaching were tasks done “for the sake of heaven.”
“For him, the combination of Torah and work was a way of life,” he said.Increasing employment and military service
among the ultra-Orthodox — about 10 percent of the population, by most
estimates — it is one of the central planks of Am Shalem’s platform.
The rabbi also calls for easing the conversion
process for immigrants from the former Soviet Union. He argues that
people who come from the “seed of Israel” — with Jewish ancestry but not
a Jewish mother, as demanded by religious law — must be greeted with an
approach that “eases their way and brings them closer” to Judaism.
His views led to his acrimonious expulsion from Shas at the end of 2010.
Amsalem is very much a product of the Israeli
Orthodox world, and is a moderate by its standards. He says he believes
“the people of Israel come before the land of Israel,” but defines
himself as a “man of the right” and is a member of the pro-settlement
lobby in the Knesset.
Neither is he a religious pluralist. Amsalem
thinks Judaism needs a more inclusive Orthodoxy, not a rethinking of
religious practice. He has little patience for non-Orthodox
denominations. He believes women who wear prayer shawls at the Western
Wall, for example, are committing a “provocation.”
Israelis have much to learn, he said, from the
lost Jewish communities of North Africa. The rabbis there, he said,
were smart enough to accept all Jews in their Orthodox communities, no
matter their level of religious practice. Thus there were no Reform or
Conservative communities, he said: “They weren’t needed.”
“You could be more stringent or less stringent, it didn’t matter. Everyone stayed in the community,” Amsalem said. The most important thing the Jews of North
Africa brought with them to Israel, he said, was “not baklava, or
dancing, or any of this nonsense — it was moderation.”
But when North African rabbis arrived in
Israel, he said, Israeli society “didn’t know enough to appreciate their
wisdom.” Instead, Israeli Orthodoxy became so unforgiving it drove