Every election cycle, in non-pandemic times, the election campaign of ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism culminates in a dramatic rally in the streets of Bnei Brak or Jerusalem with tens of thousands of haredi men and addresses from some of the sector’s leading rabbis.
In general, the messaging at these rallies is largely on what is described as a religious obligation to vote and the catastrophic crisis of what may transpire if UTJ does not get enough seats in the next Knesset.
This year has of course been different with large gatherings much more difficult due to the pandemic, but the messaging has been much of the same, combing religious duty, fear of what could happen if UTJ’s opponents get into office, and an insistence that if you don’t vote for the party you are not even ultra-Orthodox.
As ever, UTJ has put its senior rabbinic leadership front and center in expressing these concerns, utilizing the authority they command with the ultra-Orthodox public, both in the hassidic and non-hassidic “Lithuanian” communities of the broader Ashkenazi haredi community, to transmit these messages.
So on Friday, a “holy call” declaration was issued by the leading rabbis of the hassidic sector emphasizing these issues.
The grand rabbis of the Gerrer, Belz and Vizhnitz hassidic communities, together with the grand rabbis of several other prominent hassidic dynasties, wrote that there is “a danger hovering over the existence of the foundations of Judaism in the Holy Land.”
This danger, the letter stated, emanates from “those who have brazenly inscribed on their banner the persecution of religion and tradition,” and said that the community is living through “a time of emergency for the salvation of the Torah world.”
This was the grand rabbis’ appeal to fears of persecution and the destruction of Judaism.
They continued to say that members of the ultra-Orthodox community have “a holy obligation to vote for UTJ, which is subject to the authority of the leading rabbis,” and in so doing will sanctify God’s name.
This was the pitch for voting based on a supposed religious obligation, similar to the binding religious laws enumerated in the Torah which the ultra-Orthodox community strives meticulously to fulfill.
This was the appeal for votes on the basis of ultra-Orthodox identity, essentially warning that not voting UTJ is akin to siding with those who hate the ultra-Orthodox.
And on Saturday night, UTJ turned its focus to the non-hassidic sects.
The party released an unprecedented video of Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, one of the two most senior rabbis of the non-hassidic ultra-Orthodox community, answering questions of a political nature, albeit posed by two UTJ party operatives.
Asked why the ultra-Orthodox public should vote for UTJ, despite frustration with the party in the sector, Edelstein replied, “If you don’t vote for UTJ you are stopping the sanctification of God’s name. They’re declaring, ‘I am not ultra-Orthodox.’”
In short, a naked appeal to voters’ sense of ultra-Orthodox identity, combined with the religious obligation of voting for UTJ.
The rabbi also emphasized the fear aspect of the UTJ campaign, saying that the ultra-Orthodox parties had to back the right-wing political bloc because “the goal of the Left is uprooting religion and against the ultra-Orthodox.”
Prof. Yedidya Stern, the president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and an expert in ultra-Orthodox society, said that he believed the messaging on ultra-Orthodox identity demonstrates a certain insecurity within UTJ.
The strong challenge to UTJ in this election is that of MK Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party, which is as conservative on religious issues as the ultra-Orthodox parties are, and also ultra-nationalist, both of which appeal to certain sub-sectors of the ultra-Orthodox community.
Both Edelstein and the hassidic rabbis insisted that only UTJ and its MKs are committed to listening to the leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis, an implicit message that voting for Smotrich means voting against these rabbis.
Fulfilling the instructions of the rabbis and the principle of Da’as Torah, that you should listen to the instructions of rabbis on temporal as well as sacred matters, is a critical value in ultra-Orthodox society and therefore a powerful motivating factor for members of the community when elections come around.
If the usual diet of religious obligation is not working, then an appeal to ultra-Orthodox identity, another hugely important concept for members of the sector, is a good way to shore up the vote.
Betzalel Cohen, an expert on haredi society and the head of the Beit Midrash Anshei Hayil for Torah Leadership at the Society for Advancement of Education, said, like Stern, that the very fact that UTJ and its rabbis are focusing on ultra-Orthodox identity demonstrates the concern they have that some of their voters may opt for Smotrich’s outfit.
“Using the issue of identity demonstrates weakness because it shows that the message of religious obligation is not fully working, so they need another form of motivation to keep all parts of the ultra-Orthodox public voting for UTJ.”
Stern added that the element of fear in the rabbis’ appeals to their voters has also been heightened in the current campaign, again reflecting the concern within UTJ’s ranks that enough voters may abandon the party and cause it to drop a Knesset seat.
Ultimately, this focus on fear, religious obligation and identity remains highly potent among ultra-Orthodox voters and comprises a difficult psychological barrier to overcome when reaching the ballot box.
Stern says that he believes ultimately that just like religious-Zionist voters now spread their votes among a plethora of parties, so too will ultra-Orthodox voters break with their sectoral parties.
But for now, it appears the rabbis’ message of religious duty, fear and identity will win the day for UTJ once again.