How Shas expanded its voter base while under hostile fire in the elections

The ultra-Orthodox party dramatically raised its voter share in towns and cities in the periphery by targeting religiously traditional voters who may have left Shas in recent elections.

Shas party leader Arye Deri (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Shas party leader Arye Deri
In the April election, both ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism did surprisingly well, garnering eight seats each, an improvement of some 20% over their cumulative 13 seats in 2015.
For Shas at the time, the result was even more impressive given that at the beginning of the campaign in December 2018, the party had been polling close to the electoral threshold and was in danger of being wiped out.
In the election last week, Shas not only improved on its April result by adding one seat, it actually received an additional 71,000 votes, a massive 24% increase.
How did it make such impressive gains?
Shas campaign spokeswoman Moran Agamy says there was a much bigger emphasis in the September election on traditional voters in the country’s north and south, the so-called periphery. The campaign in April, Agamy added, was a campaign of survival.
There was a real fear in 2018 that recommendations by the police to indict party leader Arye Deri on several corruption charges, the flight of Shas’s traditional voters to non-religious parties after the death of the party’s spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in 2013, and internal divisions in the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox community would sink the party below the electoral threshold.
This required a focus on Shas’ core constituency of ultra-Orthodox voters, who at the time were thought to comprise approximately 2/3 of the party’s voters who had stuck with the party in 2015 and given it seven Knesset seats.
In the election last week, however, a massive focus was placed on attracting religiously traditional citizens, though not necessarily strictly observant, from Sephardi working class backgrounds in the periphery.
Shas’ campaign focused heavily on its achievements on socio-economic issues, noting that it had insisted on and obtained significant increases in the minimum wage during the course of the last Knesset, which had benefited primarily the working-class voters Shas was chasing.
In line with this achievement, Deri promised at the launch of Shas’s election campaign in July that the party would seek to increase the minimum wage by a further NIS 1,000 to NIS 6,300 over the course of the next Knesset.
The Shas campaign also highlighted the reduction in public transportation costs that Deri pushed, again benefiting the working class as a whole, and its efforts in raising state child-support payments.
Agamy said the campaign also highlighted various development initiatives that Deri – as minister for the development of the periphery – advanced specifically for its target population of the Sephardi, religiously traditional working-class.
Shas also emphasized its religious credentials and commitment to preserving Jewish traditions, which are important to religiously traditional Israelis who used to constitute an even larger proportion of the party’s electorate in their heyday in the 1990s.
One impressive campaign ad brought together a group of prominent Sephardi singers and musicians to record a well-known rendition of one of the slihot prayers of repentance that is recited in the Hebrew month of Elul in the lead up to Rosh Hashanah, which coincided well with the date of the election.
The campaign video showed religiously traditional and outwardly secular Sephardi Israelis, including men and women, the young and elderly, but noticeably not ultra-Orthodox walking to synagogue at night to recite the slihot prayers.
The theme of Elul, and its message of Divine forgiveness and mercy, was also emphasized to reinforce the message of preserving Jewish values and practice in the Jewish state.
Another campaign ad circulated on social media was footage of Yosef praising and blessing the IDF and its soldiers for defending the country against terror attacks and the Hezbollah guerrilla army in Lebanon.
Such messaging underlined the party’s connection to the people and country in a way that is not always apparent, or may have receded in recent years as it has focused on its ultra-Orthodox base after the passing of Yosef.
The party also made a conscious decision, as did UTJ, not to engage in a full frontal counter-attack against Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, who blasted the ultra-Orthodox and hard-line religious-Zionist parties throughout his campaign.
Agamy insists that Liberman’s vitriolic campaign was in part responsible for the increase in Shas votes because many religiously traditional families have close ultra-Orthodox relatives, and were offended as much as the ultra-Orthodox community itself by the Yisrael Beytenu attacks.
Agamy says she believes that voters were picked up from Likud, the former Kulanu party that folded itself into the Likud after the last election, and even from Gesher voters who left the party after it united with Labor ahead of the September election.
In some cities, particularly in the periphery, Shas increased its vote share by huge margins, such as the rise by 74% in Nazareth Illit, 71% in Gedera, 64% in Kiryat Shmona, 51% in Ashkelon, 38% in Beersheba, and similar gains throughout the country.
“We focused on those Sephardim, in principle, who do not wear a yarmulke every day but respect and love our traditions, say slihot prayers during Elul, and for whom the Jewish character of the state is important,” said Shas MK Moshe Arbel about the campaign. “We put our hearts on the table, we told the public who we are without inciting against others, and I think that this authenticity and sincerity led people to connect with us.”