Internal Power Struggle, Not Military Draft, Powering Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Protests

On the face of it, the ultra-Orthodox demonstrations in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and Beit Shemesh are another protest against the state and its intention to draft yeshiva students.

In fact, the burning dumpsters and blocked streets mark a new stage in the Lithuanian community’s internal split.

Two newspapers, both Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox, went to press before dawn Thursday. In one of them, Yated Neeman, the page 1 headline was dedicated to the health condition of the community’s 103-year-old leader, Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman.

“All of Israel unites in fervent prayers for the health of the father and rabbi of Israel, long may he live,” it said. Not a word in the entire edition about the wave of protests and clashes washing over the country.

The other newspaper, Hapeles, which is identified with Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, didn’t mention the ailing Steinman.

Its main headline was: “The unprecedented protest following the arrest of a yeshiva student continues.”

The different headlines and each community’s ignoring the other’s story sheds light on the goings on in the ultra-Orthodox community.

The hostility between the two Lithuanian factions is reaching a new pitch.

A minority group of the Auerbach faction (according to the Israel Democracy Institute, the faction comprises only 6.5 percent of the ultra-Orthodox public) wants to intensify the protests, while the majority is distancing itself from the demonstrators.

It seems that many ultra-Orthodox support the state’s hard line against the demonstrators – arrests, indictments and threats to deny funding to Auerbach yeshivas. Even the ultra-Orthodox Knesset members have been silent so far.

Ostensibly the current protests are directed against last week’s arrest of a Jerusalem yeshiva student.

He was randomly detained by police and found to be a deserter from military service.

He was moved to a military prison and will be brought before a military court.

He is one of hundreds of yeshiva students who obey Auerbach’s order not to report to the IDF’s recruitment centers, not even to arrange deferments.

In recent years Auerbach saw to it that for every deserter’s arrest, the streets were lit up.

But the hundreds of students taking to the streets this time seem more inflamed and eager to show their loyalty to the rabbi, even as they are pushed back by blasts of water from police hoses or spend a night in a prison cell.

They know the broader ultra-Orthodox public is disgusted with them now more than ever, due to their campaign to shame ultra-Orthodox soldiers.

Nor do people like their blocking of roads; many say these demonstrations have no justification.

Indeed, it’s hard for Auerbach’s people to explain why the demonstrations are taking place now of all times.

They have no real reason to protest.

The current draft law, which was amended last year, clearly favors the ultra-Orthodox and is expected to be struck down by the High Court of Justice because of its bias against any Jewish 18-year old Israeli who isn’t ultra-Orthodox. So why protest?

The current wave of protests wasn’t ignited by Shteinman’s ailing health, although this is supposed to bring the ultra-Orthodox community to an era of even wider rift.

There have been spasms of demonstrations in recent years and probably will be in the future.

But the understanding that the main Lithuanian leader is about to leave the stage serves as a reminder of where the Auerbach faction came from and why it split from the mainstream.

The Lithuanian breakaway is about a struggle for control and inheritance much more than about ideology or the state’s treatment of Haredim.

It starts with the rebellion that Auerbach led against Steinman’s leadership.

For the Auerbach faction, the enemy is Shteinman, no less than the army.

Keeping away from the recruitment centers was only an excuse. For the past four years the draft issue has served Auerbach, who tells his students to throw the IDF summons into the garbage, to portray Shteinman as a compromiser who wants to appease the state.

These protests have been bigger than previous ones.

The headlines in Hapeles are larger, redder, the featured statements bolder.

They proclaim the protest is “unprecedented” and “the Diaspora will burn like a bonfire.”

The ultra-Orthodox MKs, who in the past made an effort to get the Auerbach-faction deserters released from jail, are now doing nothing. Perhaps they, too, silently support the harsh steps taken by the public security and defense ministers.

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