Moderate haredi Tov Party posts disappointing results in local elections

Hardline Bnei Torah Party, led by Rabbi Auerbach, makes political strides in Bnei Brak and Modi’in Illit.

Tov activists Jerusalem 390 (photo credit: Jeremy Sharon)
Tov activists Jerusalem 390
(photo credit: Jeremy Sharon)
The moderate haredi party Tov had a bad night at the polls Tuesday evening, losing its one seat on the Beit Shemesh municipal council and failing to pick up a seat in Jerusalem, where it garnered fewer than 2,000 votes.
The party did, however, manage to cling to its seat in Betar Illit, by dint of its running together with other haredi parties in the city on a united list.
The battle for votes in the haredi sector in the latest round of municipal elections was particularly ferocious, with two new ultra-Orthodox parties vying for the electoral spoils.
Tov, which seeks to represent haredim who are more integrated into the workforce and society than the mainstream of the community, went into the elections with a good degree of momentum and optimism. A poll in Jerusalem’s Kol Ha’ir local newspaper showed the party gaining at least one seat on the city council, and the announcement that they had the implicit backing of a senior haredi rabbi – the grand rabbi of the Amshinov Hassidic dynasty – raised party hopes for a revolution in haredi politics.
But in Beit Shemesh, where the party already had one seat in the previous five-year council term, Tov took only 1,277 votes out of 33,554 cast, or 3.8 percent. In Jerusalem, the results were even more catastrophic, with the party taking 1,833 votes out of 218,644 – just 0.86%.
Still, the movement’s chairman, Hanoch Verdinger, who was first on the party’s Jerusalem list, said that although the results of the election were disappointing, the impact of having run campaigns in three major haredi strongholds would be long felt.
“If you look at the results in terms of the number of votes we received, then we failed,” he said in a conversation with The Jerusalem Post. “But in terms of getting our message out, having it heard, and the simple fact of exposing people to an alternative world view which says that you can remain haredi but live in a different manner – this is historic.”
He said the awareness of the Tov party and its ideas was now much greater than before the election campaign, and that even this step was of great significance.
By contrast, Bnei Torah, a hardline haredi party set up as part of a rebellion against the mainstream non-hassidic haredi rabbinic and political leadership of Degel Hatorah, fared as well as its leaders could have hoped.
The party, headed by spiritual guide Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, took two council seats in Bnei Brak, two in Modi’in Illit and one mandate in Jerusalem.
Sweetest for Bnei Torah, however, was the 3.6% of the mayoral vote that its candidate Haim Epstein took.
Although incumbent mayor Nir Barkat won the election by some 6%, it was Bnei Torah’s refusal to withdraw its candidacy that gave the hassidic groups in Jerusalem the excuse not to back Likud- Beytenu candidate Moshe Lion, depriving him of critical votes in the tight race and essentially sealing the election for Barkat.
Degel Hatorah had endorsed and campaigned for Lion, but Bnei Torah had refused to back him, primarily to frustrate Degel.
Senior Bnei Torah official Yishaiyahu Wein told the Post on Wednesday that the party would willingly join Barkat’s coalition and would request a portfolio or similar position of authority within the municipal administration in return for having refused to unite the haredi vote in the city – an eventuality that would very likely have been fatal for the incumbent.
As to wider haredi politics, Wein said he doubted Degel Hatorah would be any more accommodating to Auerbach’s faction in the future, despite its newfound political significance. But he claimed that Bnei Torah no longer needed Degel’s sanction or approval and that the party could move on to national prominence.
The contrasting fortunes of Auerbach’s party and Tov are striking. Auerbach and Bnei Torah have taken an even harder stance against the issue of haredi IDF enlistment than Degel Hatorah has, and represents the hard Right, religiously speaking, of the mainstream ultra-Orthodox community (excluding even more extreme groups such as the Eda Haredit communal organization, the Satmar Hassidim and Natorei Karta).
While Bnei Torah burst into prominence in these elections by taking five seats and turning the course of the election in Jerusalem, Tov was unable even to hold on to previous gains.
Verdinger argued, however, that the results did not indicate increased radicalization of the haredi sector, and said that Auerbach’s faction and supporters had simply created a more suitable political home for themselves.
“Degel and Bnei Torah are not offering two different perspectives or ideologies, just different tactics geared toward the same strategy,” he said. “What Tov is offering, and what we hope can evolve to become part of the mainstream haredi consensus, is that people can remain haredi but can live more in accordance with their own wishes, earn a living, and break out of the cycle of poverty.”