The crisis over mandatory military service by ultra-Orthodox men that almost tore apart the ruling coalition this month caught Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unprepared. He was not the only one. Ultra-Orthodox Knesset members, chief among them Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of Yahadut HaTorah, or United Torah Judaism (UTJ), were also surprised.
Acting on instructions from Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, the head of the Ger Hasidic court, Litzman was forced to hand Netanyahu an ultimatum over a proposed bill lifting criminal sanctions against yeshiva students refusing to enlist for compulsory military service. Litzman threatened that if the new draft bill failed to pass, his party would block the 2019 budget.
Until a year ago, Litzman had been the sole spokesman on political matters for the largest and most influential Hasidic sect in Israel and a close confidant of its leader, the Ger rabbi. His opponents in the sect, however, found the politician’s soft spot and hit it with the conscription bill ultimatum.
Two main political factions represent Israel’s ultra-Orthodox citizenry. One is the double-headed UTJ faction, a union of Agudat Yisrael, representing Hasidic Jews, and the Degel HaTorah, representing the so-called Lithuanian wing of non-Hasidic Jews, and the other is Shas, which represents ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Jews, who mostly hail from Arab states. Shas generally toes the UTJ line on issues of state and religion, but it is considered more moderate and usually negotiates compromises between UTJ and the five other parties in the governing coalition.
The ultra-Orthodox politicians receive their marching orders from the Councils of Torah Sages — each party or stream has its own rabbi council — which make fundamental decisions on matters of principle. The 2013 death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Shas founder and longtime leader, greatly diminished the power of that party’s rabbi council. The supreme council of Degel HaTorah was similarly affected by the death in 2012 of Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv, after which the so-called Jerusalem sect refused to submit to the authority of Elyashiv’s successor, Rabbi Aharon Steinman, and broke from the party. Steinman died three months ago, and there is currently no heir of significantly high religious authority. Agudat Yisrael’s Council of Sages consists of the chief rabbis of the various Hasidic courts comprising the party, and what matters there is size. Thus, Litzman’s Ger court, the biggest one, dominates the party.
Litzman is a seasoned politician. He has been around the Knesset since the 1980s, serving as an aide to ultra-Orthodox politicians Avraham Shapira and Moshe Feldman. In 1999, he was elected to the Knesset, and in 2001 he had already become head of the powerful Finance Committee. Together with his colleague Moshe Gafni from Degel HaTorah, he managed the affairs of the ultra-Orthodox regarding the government and the Knesset.
In 2009, Litzman was appointed to head the Ministry of Health, but for religious reasons, he held…