Haredi political rally in Bnei Brak, March 11, 2015.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
For decades, there has been an unquestioned political axiom in Israel: Ashkenazi haredim (ultra-Orthodox) vote for United Torah Judaism (a combination of the Litvak and hassidic brands of Orthodoxy) and their Sephardi haredi peers for Shas. Behind this very black and white statement hides a more complex and developing reality.
Among other sociological trends within haredi society, we are seeing an important change – a genuine if nascent political debate. This change is framed on the backdrop of three realities. On the one hand, blurred lines of authority at the most senior level of the haredi spiritual leadership, on the other, increasingly confident haredi women seeking, and in some cases demanding, greater public influence within haredi society.
Finally, there is a burgeoning community of haredim no longer pursuing full-time Torah study as a lifelong pursuit, instead seeking some form of career. They too are finding their voice and seek more direct representation.
The followers of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach have threatened not to vote in the election, due to the rivalry between Auerbach (who lives in the capital) and centenarian Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman (who lives in Bnei Brak). The rivalry between Jerusalem and Bnei Brak has simmered since the passing of the previous Ashkenazi spiritual leader, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv in 2012, and has resulted in tension and even violence between the opposing hawks.
Rabbi Auerbach’s followers were partially successful in the recent municipal elections, but do not yet have enough force to run nationally, hence the use of their veto as a form of power in next week’s general election.
Shas has been a boiling pot of political machination since the passing of the great Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in 2013.
Former head of Shas Eli Yishai has broken away, on the back of political rivalry with long-time leader and rival Arye Deri. The two men are now making identical claims, that they had the backing of the late Rabbi Yosef, the ultimate decisor within Shas during his lifetime.
Haredi women are beginning to insist that they too be directly represented, either with their inclusion on the mainstream haredi party lists, or via a new party founded by haredi women, Ubezchutan. Rabbi Yosef’s daughter, Adina Bar-Shalom, almost accepted offers to join a non-haredi list and become the first Sephardi haredi woman in the Knesset. In addition there is pressure mounting on UTJ to recognize the working haredim as a distinct constituency with its own needs and agenda.
Undoubtedly this is a thorny question for haredim. The traditional haredi parties have employed a simple tactic to avoid any questioning of their hegemony. Since Da’at Torah (lit: The Law’s View) is the way that haredi spiritual leaders rule, and since those with access to those leaders are the haredi politicians, it has historically been the case that self-defining as a haredi means making life decisions according to Da’at Torah and hence a simple logic leaves the only choices as UTJ or Shas. This logic has not surprisingly been strongly reinforced by the haredi newspapers directly associated with the haredi parties.
Why then is this hegemony under threat? There are many intertwining reasons for this change. Three are mentioned above. With the gradual dissolution of singular rule by a Great Rabbi (arguably Rabbi Elazar Shach and Rabbi Yosef) we see a correlating trend for divergent political groupings. I would expect this trend to grow, as there seems to be a lack of credible single successors in either the Ashkenazi or Sephardi haredi camps.
The role of haredi women has changed over the decades. From a position of solely remaining home, they have developed into the main breadwinners, and in many cases achieve degrees and qualifications well in advance of their male peers.
While this differentiation has been by design, enabling the haredi men to dedicate themselves to a life of full-time Torah study, the side-effect has been an increasingly integrated woman, working in secular society and indeed rising to senior rank in many roles, with the exception of public life.
The multiplication of haredi news outlets cannot be ignored. With the advent of the Internet and mobile phones, political parties no longer have exclusive control of information.
The growth of these communication channels has inevitably lead to a more open debate about the key issues concerning haredim as voters and citizens.
It is with this complex backdrop that I attended what I think is a first in Israel: an election panel, arranged by haredim (students of the Hebrew University), for haredim and with all haredi panelists, including a woman.
Only one of the panelist represented the official haredi parties. Aside from the specific content, which was in of itself a fascinating window into the types of issues concerning young haredim as they embark on adult life, the mere existence of such an event is testimony to the multiplying voices within haredi society.
The development of civil dialogue and institutions not controlled by the two main parties will continue to challenge the spiritual leadership.
Rabbinic leadership is inherently conservative and reluctant to accept change. Change is happening anyway, the outcome of which is difficult to predict.
There will be opportunities for mainstream political parties to attract haredi voters, but this will require those parties to be more in tune to haredi needs. On the other hand, and of no less importance, haredim taking responsibility for haredim in a more open fashion will allow their society to tackle some of its own internal challenges. Critically, they will prepare for a more confident and nuanced approach to becoming a constructive player within Israeli society.The author is chairman of Gesher.