Uninvited from the party: Am Shalem betrays mission

Rabbi Haim Amsalem's decision to focus his efforts solely on providing a Sephardi alternative to Shas is a stinging act of hypocricy

A few months ago I attended a meeting at the Am Shalem movement’s headquarters for young activists. Am Shalem, for those unfamiliar with the movement, was founded by MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem, formerly of Shas. Rabbi Amsalem broke off from Shas after a public dispute about whether all haredi men should study in kollel or not.

Amsalem’s position that the vast majority of men should earn a respectable living outside of yeshiva led to his eventual expulsion from the party. He decided to create a new party, Am Shalem (Whole Nation), which would fight for haredim to share an equal load of national service, as well as take on a whole slew of issues ranging from combating racism to reforming the Chief Rabinate. Primary among the party’s goals was unity – that we are one nation, whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi, religious or secular, Russian or Ethiopian or Anglo — everyone needed to unite to help solve the social issues that plague our mutual homeland.

At this meeting, one of the things that most impressed me was the wide spectrum of society represented. Most of the 20 or so activists were young Sephardi haredim, but quite a few (including myself) were Anglos, and one or two were secular. I really believed I was witnessing the birth of a movement that was revolutionary, that would fight for social justice for all sectors of society, and change the face of the nation.

I was wrong.

A betrayal of his constituents? Rabbi Haim Amsalem (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A betrayal of his constituents? Rabbi Haim Amsalem (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Yesterday, stalwart Am Shalem activist Dov Lipman announced that he was stepping down as the party’s Anglo representative.

“MK Rabbi Amsalem has made a strategic, not ideological, decision to focus his efforts exclusively on the Sephardic population which Shas has ceased to represent,” Lipman wrote on his Facebook page.

The fact that the distinction between “strategic” moves and “ideological” ones is blurry at best seems to have been lost on the Am Shalem leadership. Even more incredibly, this was the party that was supposed to be fighting the good fight and not — like so many others — compromising its most fundamental principles.

For a party that regularly accuses Shas of betraying its constituency, the hypocrisy is stunning. In most of the interviews Rav Amsalem has given he has stressed how a lack of unity is one of the greatest dangers facing the country today. By deciding to focus on one sector that message is undermined. Not only that, but the party has now become the very thing it was supposed to replace. It calls to mind the final scene of George Orwell’s masterpiece “Animal Farm:”

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

I still admire Rav Amsalem a great deal, and I hope he changes the party’s direction before it is too late.

Only a few months ago Rav Amsalem said, “A nation is only complete when it includes all sectors of society.” Maybe that can be said about society. But one thing is certain — it can no longer be said about Am Shalem.

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Editor’s note: In order to clarify the factual basis of the article, a quote from former Am Shalem activist Dov Lipman was added after publication. The headline was also edited to more accurately reflect the article’s argument.

About the Author
Josh Feigenbaum is a former Am Shalem activist and a student of Middle Eastern Studies at Bar Ilan University