The aggressive grievance politics of UTJ’s novice chief Yitzhak Goldknopf

He doesn’t think math matters, says yeshiva students work harder than soldiers, has a ruthless reputation, lacks political experience — and wants to be the next finance minister

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

United Torah Judaism chairman Rabbi Yitzchak Goldknopf poses for a picture in Jerusalem on September 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
United Torah Judaism chairman Rabbi Yitzchak Goldknopf poses for a picture in Jerusalem on September 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Rabbi Yitzhak Goldknopf was not an obvious choice to replace Yaakov Litzman as head of the United Torah Judaism faction.

Though he’s long been a public figure, running a major ultra-Orthodox kindergarten network and leading at times brutal fights against businesses operating on Shabbat, Goldknopf has no real political experience, having never served in the Knesset or even in a significant municipal position. Turning 72 on Sunday, he is relatively old to begin a career in politics. Moshe Gafni, whom he is replacing, began his parliamentary career at age 36.

Goldknopf also has a less than stellar reputation within the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community. He has repeatedly faced internal accusations of dodgy practices in the management of his kindergarten network, including underpaying staff and firing teachers at the end of each year to prevent them from gaining seniority and the higher paychecks that go along with it. (He maintains that he follows national labor laws.)

According to Gilad Malach, a researcher who studies Haredi society, while he lacks experience, youth and popularity, Goldknopf does have close ties to the head of the Gur Hasidic sect, Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, which in the case of the United Torah Judaism party is the only thing that really matters.

“When [Yesh Atid party leader Yair] Lapid chooses who’s on his list, he thinks electorally — Who will bring me the most votes? What works out the best? But in United Torah Judaism, the person who decides is the Gur rebbe and he’s not necessarily thinking about electoral considerations,” Malach said. “He’s thinking about who’s close to him or someone he knows and trusts. Those are his considerations, not experience or popularity in the community.

“And so it turned out that he picked a person who is, first of all, relatively old and who is also inexperienced politically. He also isn’t beloved by the Haredi public, particularly because of the story with the kindergartens.”

Though he lacks parliamentary experience, Goldknopf does have a more than 20-year history in leading highly public crusades against companies that operate on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, when Jewish law forbids work.

“He’s experienced in public campaigns, particularly campaigns that have to do with Shabbat, which is an issue that is very important to the Gur rebbe,” Malach said.

File: Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter of the Gur Hasidic Dynasty attends a rally of United Torah Judaism party, ahead of upcoming elections, in Jerusalem, April 8, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Goldknopf was himself surprised by his selection to lead the party.

“I’ve really never been a candidate. I’ve never been on a party slate. It was never my ambition… but my teacher and rabbi saw that I could help in the public sphere,” he told the Haredi JDN news site.

A forced choice

The long-term United Torah Judaism alliance is made up of two parties: Agudat Yisrael, which represents Israel’s various Hasidic sects, and Degel HaTorah, which represents non-Hasidic Haredi Jews, also known as Lithuanians or mitnagdim, literally meaning “opposers” for their historic opposition to Hasidic Judaism.

UTJ uses a rotation system for leadership, which is why Goldknopf — from Agudat Yisrael — has taken over the top spot from Gafni, of Degel HaTorah, in this election.

Alter was forced to pick a new head of the party after his preferred choice, Litzman, was forced to step down as part of a plea deal over his improper involvement in efforts to prevent the extradition of Malka Leifer, a woman from the Gur Hasidic sect who is accused of serially sexually abusing girls in a school where she was teacher and principal in Australia.

Adopting a form of grievance politics, Goldknopf has repeatedly declared that Israel’s Haredi population is discriminated against, financially deprived and treated “like dogs.” He has also downplayed the contributions of IDF soldiers and dismissed the importance of a secular education.

While this style of political rhetoric in Israel is a mainstay of Haredi discourse, Malach said it is normally done with a bit more finesse and savvy than Goldknopf has shown.

Gilad Malach (courtesy of the Israel Democracy Institute)

“He is doing it much more coarsely. It’s not that he’s saying, ‘We shouldn’t be forced to learn the secular core curriculum.’ He’s saying: ‘The core curriculum is worthless. Who needs that nonsense?’ It’s much cruder than how most Haredi politicians express themselves in the secular press. I can’t imagine Gafni saying such a sentence,” Malach said.

Though he has been cautious not to explicitly demand that he be appointed finance minister should the right-wing religious bloc take power, Goldknopf has clearly indicated that he’s interested in the office.

“If I will be the 61st seat [in the Knesset] for Netanyahu, why shouldn’t I get the finance portfolio? In the previous government, we saw that six seats are enough to be prime minister, so why can’t I be finance minister, especially because we’ll have more seats,” he told Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site, earlier this summer.

Gaffe after gaffe

After a relatively quiet beginning to the campaign, over the past month Goldknopf has repeatedly found himself in the spotlight for contentious, divisive remarks that have put him at odds with non-Haredi parties and even with some in his own community.

On October 8, Goldknopf appeared on Channel 13 and was asked if he thought that people who served in the military should be given additional housing benefits after they complete their service, beyond those offered to Haredi Israelis who don’t serve in the military and instead study in yeshivas.

“It’s more difficult for the one who studies Torah than the one going to the front,” Goldknopf said. “Try to send your husband to study Torah for a month. He’ll tell you, ‘I’m willing to go to the army for a year instead of learning Torah because it’s too hard.'”

“Come on, there aren’t threats every day. And there are more threats inside Israel than on the border,” Goldknopf added.

His remarks were quickly and harshly denounced by political rivals and media commentators, particularly as hours after the interview aired, a soldier was shot dead by a Palestinian gunman at an East Jerusalem checkpoint.

A week later, Goldknopf again found himself at the center of controversy after he claimed on Channel 12 that he “never saw English and mathematics actually advance the country economically.”

Political opponents quickly seized on the remark and lambasted the Haredi leader.

“Goldknopf… is eyeing the Finance Ministry so he can give stipends to those who don’t work and don’t contribute at the expense of the middle class, those who serve, who work and who pay taxes,” said Finance Minister and Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman, a persona non grata in most Haredi circles.

Yisrael Beytenu party head Avigdor Liberman announces his list for the upcoming elections at a campaign event in Tel Aviv, September 12, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The UTJ leader had been asked about the teaching of a core state curriculum in Haredi schools. Currently, Haredi schools are required to teach the core curriculum — which includes English and math — in order to receive state funding, but last month Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu brokered a deal under which Haredi schools would receive this money regardless of their curricula.

In a later interview with the financial The Marker newspaper, Goldknopf doubled down on his opposition to a core curriculum being required in exchange for state funding.

“With your current approach, you can decide tomorrow morning that those who don’t learn core subjects will not be able to enter Hadassah University Hospital and receive medical treatment. Only those who have studied [secular subjects] will be able to be hospitalized on the upper floors and receive treatment from the professors,” he said.

Then, last week, Goldknopf appeared to feed into stereotypes of Haredi Israelis as tax evaders. When asked about recent polling numbers showing low projected turnout among Haredi voters, Goldknopf suggested this was because many potential respondents didn’t answer for fear that it is the Tax Authority.

“Haredim have a tendency to not answer phone surveys. They say to themselves, ‘Maybe it’s the Tax Authority, maybe it’s National Insurance. Leave me alone,'” Goldknopf told the Galey Israel radio station.

Haredim have a tendency to not answer phone surveys. They say to themselves, ‘Maybe it’s the Tax Authority, maybe it’s National Insurance. Leave me alone,’

Liberman, whose popularity is in no small part based on his opposition to Haredi politicians, again jumped on Goldknopf’s remark.

“Income tax doesn’t really resonate with Goldknopf and his friends. That’s why it’s important to vote [Yisrael Beytenu]. Otherwise you’ll get a lot of calls from the tax office, because ultimately someone has to carry the load,” he said.

Though Goldknopf’s comments align with his politics, they’ve been seen as amateurish errors, giving ammunition to the party’s opponents without any benefits to its base.

“He really doesn’t have much experience in dealing with the secular press… He’s been a bit of a bull in a china shop,” Malach said.

“In almost every interview he’s done he says things that raise concerns — about his views on the core curriculum, about his understanding of the modern world, and what he’ll do in the future,” the analyst pointed out.

“Even within the Haredi world, I’ve been hearing people raise concerns about how he’ll manage things in the future. If he says he wants to run the Finance Ministry or chair the Knesset’s Finance Committee and he says that math isn’t important, that raises some concerns, not only among non-Haredi Israelis but even within Haredi forums,” Malach said. “The way he handles himself in interviews definitely isn’t bringing him votes and it may be giving votes to his political opponents.”

Goldknopf’s tendency toward gaffes has even been acknowledged within his own party. When asked about his running mate’s controversial remarks regarding math and English, Gafni, who has led UTJ over the past year, said they weren’t necessarily representative of the party.

He’s been a bit of a bull in a china shop

“He is a bit inexperienced in these matters. The faction will sit and everyone will say their thoughts. The stance of United Torah Judaism is that we will do whatever is right for all citizens of Israel,” Gafni said in an on-stage interview at an election conference organized by Channel 12 last week.

According to Malach, Goldknopf’s inexperience, possibly misguided remarks and contentious past likely will not harm UTJ in the polls. The party has been projected to win seven or eight seats in the current election — roughly the same number it has won in every election since 2013 — but a lack of popular support may affect the party’s performance going forward.

“Most Haredim vote [for UTJ] because they have to, because it’s a mitzvah, because it’s what the rabbis say. But they’re not in love [with Goldknopf], and that’s something that can have an impact,” Malach said.

The ‘macher’ from Jerusalem

Born in Jerusalem to a well-connected Gur Hasidic family, Goldknopf began working in education in his early 20s, first running elementary “Talmud Torah” schools and then joining his father Yehuda Arieh in managing a network of Beit Yaakov kindergartens and daycares in the early 1980s.

After his father died in 1988, Goldknopf took over the school system, which was made up of hundreds of kindergartens and daycare centers that cared for thousands of children. In 1990, he opened a network of special needs schools for Haredi students, Petachya.

Within years, Goldknopf came under fire for his management of the Beit Yaakov kindergartens and daycares.

A 2008 state comptroller report identified a host of unfair labor practices, including paying teachers and daycare workers far below the standard rates for their positions and forcing staff to quit in order to prevent them from gaining seniority.

“The findings indicate improper administration by the Beit Yaakov management, waste of public funds, and the denial of salaries for workers,” the comptroller found.

Subsequent investigations by news outlets, secular and Haredi, in 2010 and 2015 found these shady business practices continued at Goldknopf’s kindergartens, with workers claiming they were forced to work additional hours without pay and facing disproportionate penalties for minor infractions like arriving to work late.

Goldknopf has also been accused of nepotism, at one point employing more than a dozen close female relatives, including his mother who at that point was well into her 80s, at high salaries. Goldknopf has denied any untoward behavior and insists he acts in accordance with labor laws.

El Al, AM:PM and more

In addition to his education work, Goldknopf became closely involved in fights over Shabbat observance in Israel, leading the Rabbinic Committee for the Sanctity of Shabbat when the group was formed in the late 1990s.

The group, which was formed by top Haredi rabbis, launched its first major fight against the national Israeli airline El Al, which at that time operated on Shabbat.

The committee, led by Goldknopf, organized a mass boycott by Haredim against the carrier until it negotiated a deal under which El Al would no longer have flights on Shabbat.

With that victory in tow, Goldknopf went on to wage a similar boycott in 2008 against grocery magnate Dudi Weissman, who owned the AM:PM supermarket chain, which operated stores on Shabbat in Tel Aviv. Weissman, however, refused to capitulate, leading to the shuttering of many of his Shefa Shuk stores, which had until then primarily served the Haredi community.

More recently, the committee fought to force the closure of the Phoenicia glass factory on Shabbat, threatening boycotts not only of the factory itself but of its corporate customers. Due to the way they work, however, glass furnaces cannot be turned off, making the demand difficult to accede to. As Phoenicia makes bottles for some of the top wine and beverage producers in Israel, the threat of a large-scale boycott was a potentially serious matter. Attempts to negotiate a compromise, like exporting the containers made on Shabbat or selling the company to a non-Jew for the day, ultimately failed, leading to a stalemate.

Goldknopf has faced criticism for these boycotts over the years, with allegations that they have less to do with Shabbat observance than with economic motives. Opponents note the otherwise random and selective nature of these boycotts, as well as the fact that many of the resolutions do not truly prevent continued Shabbat desecration.

In the case of El Al, for instance, the agreement that ended the boycott was largely seen as an obvious ruse, as El Al’s planes and crews continued to operate on Shabbat but just did so under a different company name. In order to end the boycott, El Al also agreed to pay a half-million shekel “fine” that went to pay for medications not covered by HMOs — an area of interest for Haredi Israelis. In 2018, El Al also reportedly made significant donations to charities affiliated with Goldknopf’s Gur Hasidic sect at his request.

Regarding Shefa Shuk, the closure of those stores also led to the expansion of several Haredi-owned or Haredi-affiliated supermarket chains in their place. A number of theories have also been raised for the boycott against Phoenicia, including backroom deals with competing glass producers and wine importers. Though regularly heard, none of these claims has been substantiated.

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