Religious Affairs: The haredi enigma
Despite growing at faster rate than rest of population, ultra-Orthodox failed to gain proportional representation in Knesset.
Haredi men in Jerusalem Photo: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post
A curious phenomenon in recent Israeli elections has been the notable failure of
the traditional haredi parties to increase their representation in the Knesset
over the past 15 years.
Despite the haredi community’s enormous 6 percent
annual population growth — compared to 2% for the rest of the population — the
number of seats Shas and United Torah Judaism have won in elections has remained
steady since 1996, discounting the rather anomalous 1999 election when Shas took
And, in fact, results for the haredi parties actually worsened
in 2009 compared to their 2006 showing.
In the general election in 2006,
Shas took 12 seats in Knesset and UTJ six; three years later, each party dropped
Current polls suggest that Shas is hovering between 10 and 12
seats for the upcoming election, and UTJ is expected to take five or six
mandates, but no more.
The questions troubling the traditional haredi
parties are why, given the rate of population increase, their political power is
not growing, and where are haredi votes going if not to them?
In elections for
the last Knesset, approximately 15% of the ballots in the haredi communities of
Betar Illit, B’nei Brak, Elad, Modi’in Illit and Rechasim were cast for
non-haredi, principally right-wing parties such as the National Union, Bayit
Yehudi and the Likud. Yisrael Beytenu also features, although to a much smaller
In Betar Illit, for example, a purpose-built haredi city with an
overwhelmingly homogeneous haredi population, 8% of the vote went to the
Many voters in Elad, another haredi city, also opted for
the National Union, casting 8% of their ballots for the party there as well,
while 4.3% of the city’s electorate voted Likud.
According to Haim
Zicherman, an attorney and researcher on religion and state at the Israel
Democracy Institute, one of main reasons behind the haredi parties’ failure to
increase their share of the vote is a disconnect that is growing between the
average haredi person on the street and the community’s political
The political leadership represents the overall haredi
interest, primarily concerned with matters of religion and state, preservation
of yeshiva students’ ability to avoid military service and similar
The haredi street, by contrast, is more concerned with matters
that impact people directly and individually, says Zicherman.
notes that the growing numbers of haredim who are performing some kind of
national service and joining the workforce increasingly feel unrepresented by
their politicians, especially those from the Ashkenazi community whose natural
party would be UTJ.
Another cause of the disconnect between the political
leadership and the haredi public is the lack of primary elections for either UTJ
Instead, it is the spiritual leaders of these parties who
determine who will appear on their electoral lists; for Shas, the movement’s
spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and his Council of Torah Sages make the selections; for UTJ, acknowledged spiritual leader Rabbi Ahron Leib
Shteinman, his Council of Torah Scholars and the hassidic Agudat Yisrael’s
parallel council make the decisions.
“These MKs, once in office, are not
accountable to the populace,” Zicherman says.
He also points out the
longevity of the political careers of haredi politicians. MK Moshe Gafni, the
current senior UTJ representative, has been a Knesset member since 1988; Avraham
Ravitz was a UTJ MK for 21 years and died in office; Meir Porush, a former UTJ
MK who is currently No. 3 on the party’s candidates list, effectively inherited
his seat from his father, Zicherman says.
“It’s a type of monarchy in
which they don’t need to give account to their public, only to rabbis who select
them, and so the haredi public is feeling disconnected from the politicians, who
they feel are doing what they want despite public opinion.”
there are, as it seems, significant numbers among the haredi community who are
dissatisfied with their traditional parties, their other options remain
As the statistics show, a sizable number of haredi voters opt
for non-haredi parties.
But the fact that 85% of haredi voters still vote
Shas or UTJ, taken together with the failure of those parties to increase their
number of Knesset seats, would indicate that there is likely a significant
number of haredim who simply stay at home on Election Day for want of any viable
alternative to the traditional haredi parties.
One recent development is
the establishment of the Likud Haredi Group. According to Haim Serchuk, one of
the leaders of the group, there are about 1,000 members of this Likud division
and numbers are growing.
Serchuk admits, however, that the group’s impact
at the polls is not great and he does not feel that the numbers of haredim
voting for Likud present any kind of strategic threat to the dominance of UTJ
There are several types of haredim who vote for the Likud, and
who do so for different reasons, he notes. Some are simply not happy with the
representation provided to them by the MKs of the traditional parties, he says.
Haredim seeking assistance with issues regarding service in the IDF have nowhere
to turn, says Serchuk, and are not helped by the haredi MKs.
By way of
example, he cites a conflict in schedules that recently occurred between the
study hours for yeshivas and higher education colleges where some young haredi
men study for vocational and professional qualifications in order to enter the
job market. A haredi man of military age who studied full time in yeshiva under
the terms of the “Tal Law” was obligated to be in attendance at yeshiva for
strictly defined times during the day. But night classes, which some men were
attending, began at four or five o’clock in the afternoon and conflicted with
their government- mandated requirement to be in yeshiva. Serchuk says that they
got no assistance from their haredi MKs and instead turned to the Likud Haredi
Group for help.
He notes, however, that there are also some who want
their votes to carry national — rather than sectarian — significance, and so
vote for the Likud as a better way to affect national change.
grouping did not put forward a candidate to stand in the Likud primary, but it
is something that is under consideration, Serchuk says.
traditional haredi press does not acknowledge the group’s existence, it has
gained media exposure on haredi radio stations and news websites.
danger the phenomenon poses to haredi political power is not lost on the
community’s rabbinic leadership.
Last week, Rabbi Shteinman declared that
voting for UTJ was a religious obligation and further called on the public to
actively take part in the election campaign.
On the front page of the
non-hassidic Yated Neeman daily newspaper, the grand rabbis of two of the
largest hassidic communities in the country, Viznitz and Belz, called on their
hasidim and the entire haredi community to enlist in the electoral campaign and
to vote for UTJ.
One development over recent years, however, may offer a
future alternative to UTJ and Shas. The Tov political movement was established
approximately six years ago to represent members of the haredi community who, it
says, are disillusioned and dissatisfied with the community’s traditional
political leadership. In particular, Tov seeks to provide political
representation for the growing numbers of haredim who are performing national
service, entering higher education and trying to join the
Today, Tov has representatives on city councils in Betar
Illit, Beit Shemesh and Modi’in Illit and is hoping to increase its
representation in municipal elections at the end of 2013. However, the movement
has not yet registered as a political party and will not be running in the
upcoming general election.
Rabbi Hanoch Verdinger, chairman of Tov, says
that according to internal polls conducted by the movement, Tov could get
approximately 40,000 votes in the election. This is still about 30,000 below the
2% threshold required to enter the Knesset, which is why the movement decided
not to run.
“As soon as we know we’ll have 70,000 votes, then we’ll run,”
“Right now there is no point, and it’s unfair and
impractical to burn tens of thousands of votes for no reason.”
nevertheless emphasizes what he feels is the community’s lack of satisfaction
with its leadership. “UTJ’s failure to grow beyond five or six Knesset seats
shows that part of the haredi street either doesn’t vote or votes for other
parties,” he says.
Of Tov’s goals and ideals, Verdinger is clear. “We
want to give people the opportunity to live within the framework of haredi life,
but according to the priorities which are important to them and the level of
importance they attach to their life issues — whether it’s work, income,
education, how to influence events on a national level and so on,” he
This means helping people to be like regular citizens on one hand,
but on the other hand to maintain the characteristics of haredi society to which
Tov and its supporters ascribe extremely high value, “such as the importance of
Torah study and educating for love of the Torah.”
“But instead of
dictating to people for their entire lives what their opinions should be and
what their priorities should be, how much they should want and what they should
want, instead of dictating these things, the community’s leadership needs to
deal with the central issues that affect their constituents,” he
“People have their own minds — they are independent and have enough
intelligence to determine their own priorities and to establish for themselves
what’s important — and they need to be allowed to determine these things for
The options for haredim who are more inclined to Verdinger’s
world perspective remain narrow, at least in this election.
In the coming
week, Tov will issue a list of demands to Shas and UTJ relating to issues
affecting haredim in the realms of employment, army service, education and
similar matters. If either of the two traditional haredi parties agree to
advance the agenda of Tov’s demands, then the movement will endorse that party
and Verdinger remains cautiously optimistic that Tov will receive a positive
Regardless of the outcome of this election, haredi voting
patterns may well be changing because of the changing nature of haredi society
and the increasing number of people in the community seeking to enter higher
education and gain employment.
If Shas and UTJ fail once again to improve
on their Knesset representation, it could well be a sign of a different
political future for the haredi world.