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Gafni said threatening to split ultra-Orthodox UTJ faction in two amid disputes

Degel HaTorah leader is reportedly considering breaking away from longtime partner Agudat Yisrael over disagreements on power-sharing, Haredi education

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

UTJ MK Moshe Gafni reacts during a session in the plenum hall of the Knesset, on July 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
UTJ MK Moshe Gafni reacts during a session in the plenum hall of the Knesset, on July 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Degel HaTorah, one of the two factions that makes up the ultra-Orthodox political party United Torah Judaism, is reportedly threatening to run independently in the upcoming election.

UTJ is a combined slate of the Hasidic party Agudat Yisrael and the non-Hasidic Degel HaTorah. The parties have run on a joint list since 1992 barring a period in 2004-2006, when they split over a disagreement about cooperating with the coalition but reunited before the subsequent election.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, Degel HaTorah leader MK Moshe Gafni, the current head of UTJ, is threatening to sunder the alliance ahead of the November 1 election unless a series of demands are met.

Gafni took control of UTJ in 2019 from longtime chair Yaakov Litzman of Agudat Yisrael, who resigned from the Knesset last month as part of a plea deal after he abused his position to thwart the extradition of suspected pedophile Malka Leifer. Agudat Yisrael announced last month that Yitzhak Goldknopf would take over as leader of the faction.

Kan reported on Monday that Gafni is refusing to allow Goldknopf, who has never served as an MK, to run at the top of the combined UTJ slate, although it has been led by the head of Agudat Yisrael since its inception 30 years ago.

When the combined slate was first formed, Agudat Yisrael controlled 60 percent of the seats. Ahead of the April 2019 election, following years of demands, the ratio was adjusted to 50-50.

Rabbi Yitzchak Goldknopf is seen outside a meeting of the Council of Torah Sages in Jerusalem on September 7, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Now, Gafni is reportedly demanding that Degel HaTorah control 60% of the slate moving forward. The faction is also said to be irate at an agreement by the Belz Hasidim, part of Agudat Yisrael, to allow the study of some secular subjects in their schools in exchange for increased state funding.

The spiritual leader of Degel HaTorah, the 99-year-old Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, is fervently against any state involvement in Haredi schooling or the introduction of any secular subjects into boys’ classrooms.

The issue of Haredi education, a hot-button political concern, is a particularly sensitive one for the ultra-Orthodox political parties, which generally firmly resist any state involvement in Haredi schools, including attempts to introduce core subjects such as math and English.

According to Kan, Gafni and Goldknopf have yet to hold a face-to-face meeting in the month since the new Agudat Yisrael chairman was selected.

Rabbi Gershon Edelstein at his home in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak on January 4, 2022. (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)

In the latest unreliable but influential election polls, UTJ is predicted to win 7 seats, the same number it currently holds. It is unclear if, in the event of a split, both factions would get enough votes to cross the electoral threshold separately.

Last month, Gafni introduced a bill that would lower the electoral threshold to 2% from its current 3.25%. The move, which is dead in the water since the Knesset dissolution, was widely seen as an effort by the MK to ensure his party would enter the Knesset if it ran independently.

While the UTJ factions have threatened several times in the past to split, they have always managed to overcome their disagreements since reuniting in 2004.

However, several analysts have suggested in recent weeks that the contentious issue of Haredi education could be the final straw in driving the two parties apart.

Earlier this year before the coalition’s collapse, Gafni denied making comments that implied he thought the opposition should consider picking a leader other than Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu.

Last year Gafni said that perhaps the Likud party should have replaced Netanyahu as leader in order to avert the formation of the current government. As the coalition was sworn in last June, Gafni said Netanyahu stepping aside to let a different Likud lawmaker form a government “may have been the right thing to do.”

Gafni has spoken to Prime Minister Yair Lapid on two occasions since he was sworn in as premier, with one of those conversations marking the wedding of the UTJ chief’s granddaughter’s wedding, an event that raised some eyebrows over a guestlist that included MKs and ministers from across the political spectrum.

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