'Yeshiva students can't be dragged out of studies'

Haredi United Torah Judaism party garners historic 7-seat haul, but may find itself outside the next coalition.

Haredi anti-Tal Law protest no-no-no 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredi anti-Tal Law protest no-no-no 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The haredi United Torah Judaism party garnered a historic seven-seat haul in Tuesday’s election, but may nevertheless find itself outside the coalition in the next government.
Speaking on Kol Yisrael Radio, senior UTJ MK Moshe Gafni said that his party had a “clear platform” and that if other coalition parties couldn’t live with its principles, then they would not be part of the next government.
“The prime minister spoke with me last night, and we won’t rule out sitting with any party as long as they can live with us and we can live with them,” Gafni said.
The issue of haredi enlistment in national service is likely to be a serious obstacle to a coalition including both Yesh Atid and UTJ, as the Ashkenazi haredi party is fiercely opposed to any meaningful reform to the broad exemption of full-time yeshiva students from military service.
Gafni warned, however, that even if UTJ does not join the government, coalition parties would still struggle to impose their will to draft haredi men into the army.
“A government with a small majority such as is likely to be formed without us won’t last very long. And even if we’re not in the government, it still won’t be possible to impose a solution coercively. Things have to be done in a reasonable manner, yeshiva students can’t be dragged out of the study hall,” Gafni argued.
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Despite months of internecine fighting and bitter divisions between various warring factions, UTJ succeeded improving on its 2009 showing of five Knesset mandates.
The haredi political and rabbinic leadership had been extremely concerned with the possibility that the internal squabbling would cost the party votes, but a united front presented at the very end of the campaign seems to have averted such an outcome.
Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach and his so-called “Jerusalem faction” had threatened to run against UTJ with their newly founded Netzach party.
Although it became clear several weeks before the election that the new faction would not participate in elections, concerns still abounded that the dissatisfaction caused by the rift between Auerbach and the mainstream non-hassidic haredi leadership would lead voters to stay at home and damage UTJ’s share of the vote.
This scenario was also averted and UTJ eventually received Auerbach’s backing, after guaranteeing the rabbi that the party would consult with him before agreeing to any changes to military service exemptions for yeshiva students.
UTJ MK Yisrael Eichler reportedly visited Auerbach at his home in the capital on Wednesday to thank him for his support.
Coupled with Auerbach’s backing was the wave of declarations from the country’s most senior haredi rabbis over the past two weeks, about the severe consequences to the ultra-Orthodox community if it did not maximize its electoral voice – a campaign which was seemingly effective in getting the haredim out to vote.
Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, spiritual leader of the haredi world, issued a call on Tuesday to get voter turnout; Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, the second most senior figure, publicly declared that voting for UTJ was a Torah obligation and doing so would bring “spiritual and material” blessing; and various hassidic grand rabbis also called for a large turnout to avert what is widely described as the “harsh decrees of the secular public” against the haredi world.
The concerns relate to proposed legislation seen as threatening to haredi interests, especially proposed legislation to rescind mass exemptions from military service which full-time yeshiva students were able to claim until last August.
UTJ also ran a comprehensive Election Day field program in which the party MKs and candidates criss-crossed the country, visiting haredi strongholds in Elad, Modi’in Illit, Beit Shemesh, Kiryat Sanz in Netanya, and Bnei Brak, as well as Rehovot, Kiryat Malachi, Kiryat Gat, Rishon Lezion and beyond.
One final boost for UTJ, as well as for Shas, was the endorsement of the Tov movement, a new political constellation professing to represent more moderate sectors of the haredi public who participate in national service and integrate into the workforce.
The movement seeks to address the concerns of this constituency and claims to have the support of some 40,000 haredi voters.
Although Tov decided not to contest the election, it drew up a list of demands that it requested UTJ and Shas address in the coming Knesset to ensure its endorsement of the haredi parties.
The demands included, among others, action to prevent discrimination against Sephardi children in haredi schools; promoting haredi employment; and assistance for haredim seeking to enter higher education.
Tov said that parts of its list had been accepted and incorporated into the platforms of UTJ and Shas, and the movement thus granted the traditional haredi parties its backing.