When coalition negotiations collapsed Wednesday evening and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu organized a vote for the Knesset to dissolve, the majority of ultra-Orthodox factions had agreed to Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman’s demand to pass an unaltered bill regulating the draft of the ultra-Orthodox into the military.
But United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman swiftly rejected the offer, saying it would not accept any agreement based on Liberman’s demand.
Litzman is a member of the Gur Hasidic movement, and his powerful patron is the head of the sect, or Admor, Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter.
Alter is a powerful figure in the ultra-Orthodox world and could again hold the keys to the formation of a coalition after Israel returns to the polls on September 17.
According to Channel 12 news, Litzman and Alter were childhood friends but a breach in the relationship became public in 2017 when Alter ordered Litzman to resign as health minister in protest of infrastructure work on rail lines performed on Shabbat.
Litzman is the leader of Agudath Yisrael, which along with Degel HaTorah makes up United Torah Judaism, and has a focus on cutting back public transportation operations on weekends and stronger enforcement against businesses operating during Shabbat hours. Lawmakers from United Torah Judaism have previously sparked coalition crises over public works projects on Shabbat, during which work is prohibited under Jewish law, including most recently over a pedestrian bridge spanning a major Tel Aviv highway.
However, the sect also has other considerations when negotiating a role in the government.
“In the end, the ultra-Orthodox also appreciate money,” Knesset correspondent for The Marker financial newspaper, Haggai Amit, told Channel 12. “They are not blind to this issue.”
But the dynasty has pragmatic financial reasoning for a quid pro quo relationship with the state, explained Eli Bitan of the Kan public broadcaster.
“The Gur [Hasidic movement] has a perception that sees money and enrichment and business as a matter of values,” Bitan said. “They want to be independent without needing the benefit of wealthy people overseas — neither secular nor other ultra-Orthodox Jews.”
Alter is also thought to be one of the country’s richest individuals with personal wealth estimated to be between NIS 350 million to NIS 500 million (between approximately $95 million and $135 million) due to real estate investments his father made in north Tel Aviv, Arsuf and Jerusalem before Israel’s establishment.
Alter ascended to his position in the sect in 1996. He is responsible for the building of communities for his followers, including a contentious group in the southern city of Arad, where violent clashes broke out in 2017 between the city’s secular and ultra-Orthodox residents. Long-simmering tensions between residents who oppose the influx of ultra-Orthodox into the city and the local Haredi community came to a head in riots that saw both sides spitting at each other, clashing with police, and some Haredi demonstrators rolling burning tires at the home of secular residents.
According to a report in March, Litzman was intensely involved in arranging preferred medical treatment over many months for Shoshana Alter, the wife of the head of the dynasty.
Alter himself was offered similar VIP treatment a year ago, Haaretz reported, with patients evacuated from three rooms in Jerusalem’s Hadassah hospital to house him and his associates while at least 30 people were waiting in the emergency room for a hospital bed. That too was coordinated by Litzman, who personally chose the room in which Alter would be housed.
Litzman is also suspected of allegedly pushing for the falsification of a psychiatric document to help accused sex offender Malka Leifer, as well as allegedly aiding at least 9 other sex abusers.
Leifer is known to have links to the Gur community, having once taught at a school in Israel affiliated with the branch.
In April it was reported that a female Likud election worker was forced out of a polling station in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak during the April 9 election at the request of Alter.
The woman initially refused to leave the polling station, so the rabbi’s followers contacted Likud Knesset members who arranged to have the woman removed, the report said.
Ultra-Orthodox communities frequently try and impose a separation between men and women. The two genders sit separately at synagogues and weddings, and women and men who are not relatives refrain from physical contact. There have also been attempts to enforce gender segregation on public buses, but the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled it illegal. There have also been frequent instances where ultra-Orthodox men refuse to sit next to women on planes.
Most of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox media — which includes four daily newspapers, two main weeklies and two main websites — refuse to show images of women, claiming it would be a violation of modesty.
The Gur sect is known for observing the “Takanot” — a set of strict guidelines that define how Gur married couples should conduct themselves, from the mundane to the intimate.