Religious Affairs: The haredi enigma

Despite growing at faster rate than rest of population, ultra-Orthodox failed to gain proportional representation in Knesset.

Haredi men in Jerusalem 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
Haredi men in Jerusalem 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
A curious phenomenon in recent Israeli elections has been the notable failure of the traditional haredi parties to increase their representation in the Knesset over the past 15 years.
Despite the haredi community’s enormous 6 percent annual population growth — compared to 2% for the rest of the population — the number of seats Shas and United Torah Judaism have won in elections has remained steady since 1996, discounting the rather anomalous 1999 election when Shas took 17 seats.
And, in fact, results for the haredi parties actually worsened in 2009 compared to their 2006 showing.
In the general election in 2006, Shas took 12 seats in Knesset and UTJ six; three years later, each party dropped a seat.
Current polls suggest that Shas is hovering between 10 and 12 seats for the upcoming election, and UTJ is expected to take five or six mandates, but no more.
The questions troubling the traditional haredi parties are why, given the rate of population increase, their political power is not growing, and where are haredi votes going if not to them?
In elections for the last Knesset, approximately 15% of the ballots in the haredi communities of Betar Illit, B’nei Brak, Elad, Modi’in Illit and Rechasim were cast for non-haredi, principally right-wing parties such as the National Union, Bayit Yehudi and the Likud. Yisrael Beytenu also features, although to a much smaller extent.
In Betar Illit, for example, a purpose-built haredi city with an overwhelmingly homogeneous haredi population, 8% of the vote went to the National Union.
Many voters in Elad, another haredi city, also opted for the National Union, casting 8% of their ballots for the party there as well, while 4.3% of the city’s electorate voted Likud.
According to Haim Zicherman, an attorney and researcher on religion and state at the Israel Democracy Institute, one of main reasons behind the haredi parties’ failure to increase their share of the vote is a disconnect that is growing between the average haredi person on the street and the community’s political leadership.
The political leadership represents the overall haredi interest, primarily concerned with matters of religion and state, preservation of yeshiva students’ ability to avoid military service and similar issues.
The haredi street, by contrast, is more concerned with matters that impact people directly and individually, says Zicherman.
He also notes that the growing numbers of haredim who are performing some kind of national service and joining the workforce increasingly feel unrepresented by their politicians, especially those from the Ashkenazi community whose natural party would be UTJ.
Another cause of the disconnect between the political leadership and the haredi public is the lack of primary elections for either UTJ or Shas.
Instead, it is the spiritual leaders of these parties who determine who will appear on their electoral lists; for Shas, the movement’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and his Council of Torah Sages make the selections; for UTJ, acknowledged spiritual leader Rabbi Ahron Leib Shteinman, his Council of Torah Scholars and the hassidic Agudat Yisrael’s parallel council make the decisions.
“These MKs, once in office, are not accountable to the populace,” Zicherman says.
He also points out the longevity of the political careers of haredi politicians. MK Moshe Gafni, the current senior UTJ representative, has been a Knesset member since 1988; Avraham Ravitz was a UTJ MK for 21 years and died in office; Meir Porush, a former UTJ MK who is currently No. 3 on the party’s candidates list, effectively inherited his seat from his father, Zicherman says.
“It’s a type of monarchy in which they don’t need to give account to their public, only to rabbis who select them, and so the haredi public is feeling disconnected from the politicians, who they feel are doing what they want despite public opinion.”
However, if there are, as it seems, significant numbers among the haredi community who are dissatisfied with their traditional parties, their other options remain limited.
As the statistics show, a sizable number of haredi voters opt for non-haredi parties.
But the fact that 85% of haredi voters still vote Shas or UTJ, taken together with the failure of those parties to increase their number of Knesset seats, would indicate that there is likely a significant number of haredim who simply stay at home on Election Day for want of any viable alternative to the traditional haredi parties.
One recent development is the establishment of the Likud Haredi Group. According to Haim Serchuk, one of the leaders of the group, there are about 1,000 members of this Likud division and numbers are growing.
Serchuk admits, however, that the group’s impact at the polls is not great and he does not feel that the numbers of haredim voting for Likud present any kind of strategic threat to the dominance of UTJ and Shas.
There are several types of haredim who vote for the Likud, and who do so for different reasons, he notes. Some are simply not happy with the representation provided to them by the MKs of the traditional parties, he says. Haredim seeking assistance with issues regarding service in the IDF have nowhere to turn, says Serchuk, and are not helped by the haredi MKs.
By way of example, he cites a conflict in schedules that recently occurred between the study hours for yeshivas and higher education colleges where some young haredi men study for vocational and professional qualifications in order to enter the job market. A haredi man of military age who studied full time in yeshiva under the terms of the “Tal Law” was obligated to be in attendance at yeshiva for strictly defined times during the day. But night classes, which some men were attending, began at four or five o’clock in the afternoon and conflicted with their government- mandated requirement to be in yeshiva. Serchuk says that they got no assistance from their haredi MKs and instead turned to the Likud Haredi Group for help.
He notes, however, that there are also some who want their votes to carry national — rather than sectarian — significance, and so vote for the Likud as a better way to affect national change.
The grouping did not put forward a candidate to stand in the Likud primary, but it is something that is under consideration, Serchuk says.
Although the traditional haredi press does not acknowledge the group’s existence, it has gained media exposure on haredi radio stations and news websites.
And the danger the phenomenon poses to haredi political power is not lost on the community’s rabbinic leadership.
Last week, Rabbi Shteinman declared that voting for UTJ was a religious obligation and further called on the public to actively take part in the election campaign.
On the front page of the non-hassidic Yated Neeman daily newspaper, the grand rabbis of two of the largest hassidic communities in the country, Viznitz and Belz, called on their hasidim and the entire haredi community to enlist in the electoral campaign and to vote for UTJ.
One development over recent years, however, may offer a future alternative to UTJ and Shas. The Tov political movement was established approximately six years ago to represent members of the haredi community who, it says, are disillusioned and dissatisfied with the community’s traditional political leadership. In particular, Tov seeks to provide political representation for the growing numbers of haredim who are performing national service, entering higher education and trying to join the workforce.
Today, Tov has representatives on city councils in Betar Illit, Beit Shemesh and Modi’in Illit and is hoping to increase its representation in municipal elections at the end of 2013. However, the movement has not yet registered as a political party and will not be running in the upcoming general election.
Rabbi Hanoch Verdinger, chairman of Tov, says that according to internal polls conducted by the movement, Tov could get approximately 40,000 votes in the election. This is still about 30,000 below the 2% threshold required to enter the Knesset, which is why the movement decided not to run.
“As soon as we know we’ll have 70,000 votes, then we’ll run,” Verdinger says.
“Right now there is no point, and it’s unfair and impractical to burn tens of thousands of votes for no reason.”
But he nevertheless emphasizes what he feels is the community’s lack of satisfaction with its leadership. “UTJ’s failure to grow beyond five or six Knesset seats shows that part of the haredi street either doesn’t vote or votes for other parties,” he says.
Of Tov’s goals and ideals, Verdinger is clear. “We want to give people the opportunity to live within the framework of haredi life, but according to the priorities which are important to them and the level of importance they attach to their life issues — whether it’s work, income, education, how to influence events on a national level and so on,” he says.
This means helping people to be like regular citizens on one hand, but on the other hand to maintain the characteristics of haredi society to which Tov and its supporters ascribe extremely high value, “such as the importance of Torah study and educating for love of the Torah.”
“But instead of dictating to people for their entire lives what their opinions should be and what their priorities should be, how much they should want and what they should want, instead of dictating these things, the community’s leadership needs to deal with the central issues that affect their constituents,” he says.
“People have their own minds — they are independent and have enough intelligence to determine their own priorities and to establish for themselves what’s important — and they need to be allowed to determine these things for themselves.”
The options for haredim who are more inclined to Verdinger’s world perspective remain narrow, at least in this election.
In the coming week, Tov will issue a list of demands to Shas and UTJ relating to issues affecting haredim in the realms of employment, army service, education and similar matters. If either of the two traditional haredi parties agree to advance the agenda of Tov’s demands, then the movement will endorse that party and Verdinger remains cautiously optimistic that Tov will receive a positive response.
Regardless of the outcome of this election, haredi voting patterns may well be changing because of the changing nature of haredi society and the increasing number of people in the community seeking to enter higher education and gain employment.
If Shas and UTJ fail once again to improve on their Knesset representation, it could well be a sign of a different political future for the haredi world.