Ultra-Orthodox Israeli draws ire with call to work

With his dark suit, black skullcap and graying beard, Rabbi Haim Amsalem hardly looks the part of a revolutionary. But the soft-spoken lawmaker is causing an uproar in the influential and tight-knit ultra-Orthodox world in Israel with a simple message: It's time for people to go to work.

It is a stunning call to upend a tradition ingrained for generations: Most devoutly religious men in Israel study the Bible instead of entering the work force or doing military service that is compulsory for others, relying on payments from the state.

Amsalem's view — that work and integrating into mainstream society are necessary for the insular ultra-Orthodox community to progress and emerge from considerable poverty — has become the talk of the country in recent days. It has turned the previously unknown backbencher into a darling of the secular media and won him thousands of immediate supporters from across the political spectrum.

It also got him kicked out of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

"Shas has deteriorated to unreasonable levels, they've lost all proportions. They are losing their minds," Amsalem told The Associated Press on Friday. "The problem is that Shas instills terror and that's how they fool the public."

Besides ousting him, Shas called on him to resign from parliament and even branded him "amalek" — a reviled biblical enemy. Parliament has assigned him a bodyguard for fear that zealots may try to harm him.

Such criticism from within the highly disciplined and homogeneous party is unheard of. For nearly three decades, Shas held the balance of power in successive coalition governments. Its elected officials never stray from the strict rulings of the party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

The future of Mideast peace talks is currently in limbo while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu awaits word from the outspoken 90-year-old Yosef on a U.S. proposal on a renewed West Bank settlement slowdown.

Amsalem insists he is still loyal to Yosef, but that the elderly rabbi is being led astray by advisers who have neglected the party's traditional constituency of working-class Jews of Middle Eastern descent. Instead, he says it has become an uncompromising and extremist body that has exacerbated the rift between the observant and Israel's secular majority.

Many secular Israelis see the ultra-Orthodox, with their large families, as a financial drain, while the ultra-Orthodox view their secular brethren as having neglected their Jewish faith.

It is perhaps the central domestic schism in Israel and Amsalem's defection could potentially reshuffle the deck of cards that is Israeli politics.

"The secular public is hearing just one side, just one voice," he said. "At the end of the day, Middle Eastern Jews don't belong in the extreme corner."

Shas — which currently has 11 seats in the 120-member parliament — has used its considerable influence to maintain the uneasy status quo that keeps the ultra-Orthodox segregated in schools, exempt from military service and out of the workplace.

Amsalem, 51, says the arrangement has kept his community from progressing, and that only a select few rabbinical prodigies should be exempt from working and immersing into mainstream society.

"There is poverty. Whomever needs to learn the Torah, should learn; those who are not learning, should get to work," he said. "No one has ever placed a mirror before Shas. No one has said, 'Look how you look!' And they look bad."

Shas spokesman Roi Lachmanovitch said Amsalem's words were not worthy of his comment. He said he had nothing to add to the statement issued by the party's Council of Torah Sages, which called on Amsalem to return his mandate to the party or else be branded a 'swindler' — one who ignores the rabbis and violates Jewish law.

Erez Tzfadia, a public policy expert from southern Israel's Sapir Academic College who has researched Shas extensively, said the rare rebellion marks a watershed moment for Shas. He said the party has morphed from its initial mission of providing welfare for the lower class to becoming a right-wing party with an extreme religious doctrine.

"Shas failed in immersing its constituency because it couldn't improve their status ... the project failed and the gaps continued to grow," he said. "Instead, they now focus on Judaism and on hating the 'other' as a way of belonging. The name of the game is belonging."

Amsalem was born in Algeria to a Moroccan Jewish family that immigrated to Israel in 1970. A father of eight, he was ordained as a rabbi and first elected to parliament in 2006.

He says he wants to create a new moderate party based on welfare that appeals to Shas' traditional voters.

He advocates for a more compromising attitude toward conversion, military induction and the inclusion of nonreligious education — such as English, math and history — in ultra-Orthodox schools.

He says that, unlike Shas, he doesn't want a new generation of poverty to arise.

"I want them to make a respectable living," he said.