The grand rabbi of the Gur hassidic dynasty decided on Monday that he would not be endorsing any candidate for mayor of Jerusalem, a decision which, although expected, will come as a blow to Likud Beytenu candidate Moshe Lion.
A well placed source said it was now extremely unlikely that any of the major hassidic courts would openly back Lion. The source added that although there are no explicit instructions, the implicit message of the Gur rabbi’s decision is to either vote for haredi (ultra-Orthodox) fringe candidate Haim Epstein, Barkat, or to spoil the ballot.
Lion’s campaign has been banking on united haredi support in order to overcome Barkat’s large lead among non-haredi voters.
An official connected to the Lion campaign accused Barkat of signing deals with haredi factions in order to get their political support.
“The box of gifts which Barkat is offering haredi groups to support him has become irresistible for some. Once again Barkat is relying on splitting the haredi vote in a series of secret promises and backroom agreements,” said the official.
Lion enjoys public backing by haredi parties Shas and Degel Hatorah, which urge their supporters to vote for him as a religious obligation. Shas chairman Arye Deri in particular has been very active in securing support for the Likud Beytenu candidate. But splits within the haredi community between hassidic and non-hassidic parties, as well as an internal conflict within the non-hassidic community, have led to only partial ultra- Orthodox backing for Lion.
Although a recent poll published by Globes last week showed the race in Jerusalem narrowing significantly, Barkat still enjoys a six percent lead over his rival. A previous poll gave Barkat a 28% lead over Lion.
The much-reduced gap is likely due to the formal announcement made by mainstream non-hassidic rabbis between the two polls instructing their communities to vote for the Likud Beytenu candidate.
Voter turnout could now be the most important factor for Barkat. There will be a high turnout from haredi communities instructed to vote for Lion, and Barkat will need the non-haredi public to come out in large numbers if he is to be reelected.
There are approximately 576,000 eligible voters in Jerusalem, with between 95,000 and 100,000 of those coming from the haredi community.
In 2008, 228,000 votes were cast, from a total of 527,000 eligible voters. The Jerusalem’s Arab population overwhelmingly refrained from voting in municipal elections.
Alongside the failure of the large hassidic groups to support Lion, the Bnei Torah party, a rebel faction from the non-hassidic community, has refused to withdraw its candidate for mayor, Haim Epstein, from the race, despite facing heavy pressure. The Bnei Torah party, headed by its spiritual guide, Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, commands several thousand votes in Jerusalem, and the failure to persuade Auerbach to withdraw his candidate presents another obstacle to Lion’s campaign.
On Sunday, Deri reportedly visited the Bnei Torah leader at his home in Jerusalem’s Sha’arei Hessed neighborhood, to make one last attempt to persuade the rabbi to back down, but to no avail.
On Monday morning, a death threat was placed on Auerbach’s car demanding that he withdraw his Bnei Torah party from municipal and mayoral elections.
“Shmulik Auerbach,” the note derisively read, “close your party, and your blood shall not be on your head.”
Yated Ne’eman, a haredi daily newspaper and Degel HaTorah mouthpiece, published two letters on Monday morning implicitly denouncing Bnei Torah, and decreeing that it was “forbidden” not to vote.
Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, the second most senior haredi rabbi in the country, said it was “an absolute obligation on anyone with the right to vote to vote only for United Torah Judaism.” His comment was aimed not only at Jerusalem voters but also at voters in Bnei Brak and Modi’in Illit, where Bnei Torah are also running.
Kanievsky referred to the rebel faction as “empty and reckless people [who] have risen up amongst us and caused division,” and accused them of undermining the leadership of Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the spiritual leader of the non-hassidic haredi world.
Jerusalem polling stations will open at 7 a.m. and close at 10 p.m. There are 809 polling booths in 181 polling stations across the city, with 42 polling stations equipped to assist voters with disabilities.