Ultra-Orthodox parties preserve electoral power, but could be frozen out

UTJ and Shas unwillingly became a central focus of the election campaign, after Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman declared open war on the influence of the ultra-Orthodox and religious parties.

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September 17, 2019 23:28
2 minute read.
United Torah Judaism chairman Yaakov Litzman gets a briefing at the UTJ election campaign headquarte

United Torah Judaism chairman Yaakov Litzman gets a briefing at the UTJ election campaign headquarters for the Jerusalem sector on Tuesday morning. (photo credit: JEREMY SHARON)

Ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas appeared to have successfully protected the impressive electoral gains they achieved in April, according to exit polls, which show them preserving their joint Knesset representation of 16 seats.

The two parties had unwillingly become a central focus of the election campaign, after Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman declared open war on the influence of the ultra-Orthodox and religious parties.

Channel 12's and Channel 13’s exit polls both gave UTJ and Shas eight seats each, while KAN’s exit poll put UTJ at eight and Shas at nine.

Despite this success – which, if reflected in the final results, would preserve the ultra-Orthodox parties’ outsized electoral power relative to their population size – the lack of a clear majority for the right-wing bloc will create problems for UTJ and Shas in joining a coalition.

The promises of Yisrael Beytenu and Blue and White to exclude the ultra-Orthodox parties from a government have generated anger and concern among the political leadership, which they conveyed to their supporters during the final stages of the campaign.

On Election Day itself, voters in Jerusalem’s haredi neighborhoods woke up early to pray and then vote.

Men could be seen coming to voting stations with their prayer shawls and tefillin in hand, having left synagogue to perform what has become another religious obligation in the lives of the ultra-Orthodox: voting for their political parties.

UTJ and Shas political leaders have used the incendiary rhetoric of Yisrael Beytenu to portray the elections as a fight for survival, accusing Yisrael Beytenu and Blue and White of waging a war on God, the Torah and religious people.

This sentiment was widespread among voters Tuesday morning.

Simon Goldberg, who lives in New York but holds Israeli citizenship, said he returned to Israel specifically to vote for UTJ because, he said, the election would determine if religious Jews could continue to live in Israel.

“We are fighting for our life; we are fighting for our house,” Goldberg said outside a polling station in the Ezrat Torah neighborhood of Jerusalem.

“If [religious people] lose [the election], they have to take a flight back to New York or Europe,” he asserted.

Goldberg said that religious citizens could be oppressed if the religious and right-wing parties did not win the election and protested the promises of Yisrael Beytenu and Blue and White to exclude the ultra-Orthodox and religious-Zionist parties from government.

One of the key strategies employed by UTJ and Shas was to broadcast the instructions and actions of their most senior rabbinic leaders.

At 6:00 p.m., UTJ circulated a video of Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, the most senior rabbi in the haredi world, saying psalms “for the salvation of the Jews in the Holy Land.”

Shas put out a video showing its spiritual leader Rabbi Shalom Cohen calling on the ultra-Orthodox community to vote for the party in return for spiritual reward in the World to Come.

“Vote Shas and merit the afterlife,” he declared.

Earlier, a group of the party's most senior rabbinic leadership, including Cohen, staged a prayer rally at the Western Wall beseeching God to bring about success for Shas in the election.

Party activists also reportedly distributed Shas amulets and prayer books near polling stations. The amulet wrapping bore a picture of the late revered Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef with a caption reading, “Father is looking upon us from above.”



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