A visitor to Haim Amsalem’s office at the Knesset in Jerusalem will find a piece of paper taped to the wall. On it are two biblical verses from Isaiah:
“Listen to me, you who care for the right
O people who take my instruction to heart:
Fear not the insults of men, and be not dismayed at their jeers
For the moth will consume them like a garment,
The worm shall eat them up like wool.
But my triumph shall endure forever, my salvation through the ages.”
To get to this room each day, Amsalem, a bearded, bespectacled 52-year-old rabbi and lawmaker, has to walk down a long corridor past the offices of some of his former colleagues and current adversaries from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. The party has condemned him as a heretic both in political and Jewish terms — in religious politics here, the two are hopelessly intertwined — and as an incarnation of Amalek, a biblical adversary intent on the destruction of the Jewish people. Shas lawmakers generally do not acknowledge him when he passes.
In 2010, Amsalem shook up the world of ultra-Orthodox politics when he publicly split with Shas, a powerful Knesset faction and a key member of the ruling coalition, and with the party’s all-powerful religious guide, Ovadia Yosef, once his spiritual patron.
The renegade rabbi challenged what has become a sacred precept for ultra-Orthodox politicians: that all students in religious seminaries have the right not to work, pay taxes or serve in the military, and deserve state funding while they exercise those rights. This system, Amsalem said, was dysfunctional and absurd.
Amsalem also accused the leaders of his own party of abandoning their constituents, Mizrahi Jews — Israelis of Middle Eastern descent, who have long lagged behind those of European descent on Israel’s socioeconomic ladder. Instead, Amsalem said, Shas leaders had become the lackeys of Ashkenazi rabbis and their unyielding and insular brand of Judaism.
The price for his criticism was exile. Amsalem became subject to an edict forbidding the faithful from speaking to him or praying with him, was pilloried in the party press, was disowned by his rabbinic patrons and became, effectively, a parliamentary faction of one.
At the same time, however, he found friendly ears in mainstream Israel. He now appears regularly in Israeli media as a different kind of ultra-Orthodox rabbi, one who acknowledges his community’s flaws, calls for it to join the rest of Israel society, and advocates a gentler Judaism than the currently dominant local variant.
It is this support that Amsalem now hopes to harness with a new political party running in the upcoming election. The party is called Am Shalem, which means “a complete people” and is also a play on Amsalem’s name.
The party, which is supposed to announce its slate of candidates later this week, faces an uncertain fate. Some polls give it two Knesset seats, but it could well fail to garner enough votes to win a single seat and promptly disappear, as most new Israeli parties do. It is also possible, if not very likely, that it could catch on among Israelis unhappy with other parties, just as a one-issue party representing senior citizens in 2006 unexpectedly won enough seats to secure its octogenarian leader a ministerial post.
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 rabbis.
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 a school 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.
His former party, Amsalem charges, ‘once had a reason to exist, but failed’
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 boat.
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 most important thing the Jews of North Africa brought with them to Israel, he said, was ‘moderation’
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 people away.
Amsalem says he is optimistic about his party’s prospects and claims he is “not flustered” by the attacks against him. But the past few years have clearly been difficult. The passages from Isaiah taped to the wall near his desk are an exhortation not to despair: One must suffer the “insults of men” — in this case, his former colleagues and friends, and, most painfully, his former patron Ovadia Yosef, still the most respected living rabbi for eastern Jews. Humans are transient, fodder for worms, the prophet says, but God’s salvation is eternal.
Amsalem said he finds additional support in the portrait of his father, who taught him this: “Stick to your truth and finish what you started. If you have to pay a price, pay a price. Your reward will come in the end.”
This is the first in a series of profiles of political players leading up to Israel’s national election on January 22, 2013.