A Violent Schism Just Exploded in Israel’s Most Powerful Hasidic Sect
Sam Sokol, Haaretz, May 22 2022

Clashes between rival factions of the Ger Hasidic sect spread across the country over the weekend, exposing a growing and increasingly violent rift in Israel’s largest and most powerful ultra-Orthodox dynasty. Street fighting erupted Friday in three separate places: the southern city of Ashdod, the predominantly Haredi city of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem. Tensions spiked after followers of Rabbi Shaul Alter, the former dean of the movement’s flagship yeshiva in Jerusalem, reportedly hurled insults at Grand Rebbe Yaakov Alter, the movement’s leader and Shaul Alter’s cousin, as the grand rabbi was visiting his mother-in-law’s grave in north Tel Aviv the previous evening. The fighting, which continued through Saturday evening, comes after years of acrimony between the cousins, who both descend from previous grand rabbis and have competing power bases within the movement.

While Shaul Alter’s followers have not officially set themselves up as a new movement, they have largely been independent since 2019, when a small group of dissatisfied Ger Hasidim declared him their leader, joining him at his Simhat Torah services in defiance of their nominal rebbe. This came after multiple attempts to limit Shaul Alter’s authority and influence, and to centralize control of the movement, which has dominated the ultra-Orthodox political scene in Israel for generations through the United Torah Judaism party. There are about 1.175m Haredim in Israel. Dr Gilad Malach, who researches the Haredi community for the Israel Democracy Institute, said:

They don’t call themselves by a different name and don’t refer to Rabbi Shaul as the rebbe because they are very cautious, but in essence he functions as a rebbe. Rabbi Shaul is widely seen as erudite and articulate. Yaakov has a much less impressive reputation in the wider ultra-Orthodox community. Only several hundred families broke with the main branch of the movement, which numbers between 50k and 60k members, but they include some of its major donors, and their rejection of the grand rebbe’s authority is widely seen as an act of treason. The reaction of Ger Hasidim to the split in 2019 was very tough, very harsh. They declared war against all people who leave the community.

This anger was evident in the fighting over the weekend, which led to multiple injuries on all sides after the police were forced to intervene. In Jerusalem, a mob of hundreds of young men attempted to storm Shaul Alter’s yeshiva, breaking windows as the rabbi and his students hid inside. Footage from inside the building showed at least one Ger Hasid with a bloody head wound. Videos of the clashes uploaded to social media showed members of the rival groups attacking each other on the streets, vandalizing property and fighting with police. The ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar ha-Shabbat quoted one source within the movement as saying the separatists had gone “too far” and that Yaakov Alter’s followers “do not intend to remain silent about the harm to the rebbe.”

However, by Sunday morning, Haredi media reported that representatives of the rebbe had called on followers to back down following a meeting with law enforcement, signaling a possible end to the current round of violence. The Israel Democracy Institute’s Malach said:

The majority of Haredim are not on the side of the bigger group of Ger Hasidim. They don’t like this behavior.

He predicted that while public opprobrium would do little to erode the movement’s leadership within the United Torah Judaism party in the Knesset, it could weaken its standing on the local level in the next round of municipal elections.

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