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Eliezer Shach, 107; Rabbi, Political Kingmaker

November 03, 2001|From Associated Press

JERUSALEM — Rabbi Eliezer Shach, a political kingmaker who declared a cultural war on Israel's majority secular Jews, died early Friday in a Tel Aviv hospital, doctors and family members said. He was 107.

The spiritual leader of a powerful branch of Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews, Shach parlayed the votes of his followers into political power far beyond their numbers.

Though he did not oppose Israeli concessions for peace with the Palestinians, he usually instructed his representatives in the Knesset to align themselves with hawkish governments friendlier to the religious desires of his camp. Several times he decided who would be Israel's prime minister by throwing his support behind one of the two major parties.

For Shach, Israel was clearly divided into two camps: those who followed Jewish law according to its most stringent interpretation, and those who did not.

His most famous outburst came in a speech in 1990, when he ridiculed residents of the kibbutzim, the communal villages which played a major role in the founding and defense of Israel.

He told a rally of supporters that the kibbutz dwellers were ignorant of Jewish holy days and bred animals such as rabbits and pigs, whose meat is forbidden under Jewish dietary laws. "Do they have any links with their forefathers?" he asked.

The speech drew battle lines between the black-garbed ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up about 10% of Israel's population, and the majority of less observant Jews, who charged that Shach and others in his camp were misusing their political power to impose their way of life on others.

Labor Party politician Yossi Beilin said Shach's speech had set back relations between religious and secular Israelis by decades.

Shach was born into a poor family in 1894, in a village near the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius--then a world center of rabbinical scholarship. He studied scripture under the leading Jewish scholars and teachers of the age.

He left Lithuania shortly before the outbreak of World War II and later became head of the prestigious Ponevezh rabbinical seminary in the town of Bnei Brak, next to Tel Aviv.

By the 1980s he was the most influential figure in Israel's ultra-Orthodox community, and he broke away from the established ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel party to found the rival Degel Hatorah.

Shach also gave his blessing to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a Baghdad-born Jewish sage who also split from Agudat Israel and founded his own party, known as Shas.

Ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Rabbi Avraham Ravitz said Shach decided to support hawkish parties because their members, even the secular ones, were closer to Jewish tradition than those of the Labor Party or the left.

It was Shach's support which brought the right-wing Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir to power in 1990 and secured the narrow electoral victory of Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996.

Shach was active past the age of 100 but was bedridden in his last years.

Thousands gathered in Bnei Brak for his funeral. Police banned cars from entering the city several hours before the procession.

Shach is survived by a son and a daughter and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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