UTJ unlikely to face electoral consequences over communal frustration

Criticism within the ultra-Orthodox community towards UTJ MKs is keenly felt, but societal and religious imperatives mean that the party will likely not suffer badly at the ballot box.

Members of UTJ hold a press conference after meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem after the April 2019 election. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Members of UTJ hold a press conference after meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem after the April 2019 election.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
The 12 months since the last election have been tumultuous for the ultra-Orthodox community.
The sector has been rocked by the impact of the COVID-19 crisis which deeply affected the ultra-Orthodox both in terms of the high rates of infection that the sector suffered and the heavy impact government restrictions had on their ultra-Orthodox lifestyle.
The pandemic and the reaction of the ultra-Orthodox parties to it, specifically the United Torah Judaism Party which represents the Ashkenazi sector of the community, has generated anger from both sides of the coronavirus divide.
Some in the community were angered by what they saw as a failure of the UTJ MKs to combat government health regulations that prevented communal prayer, led to lockdowns on ultra-Orthodox cities at the beginning of the crisis, and hindered religious life in numerous ways.
Although the general population views the ultra-Orthodox MKs as having successfully obstructed efforts to increase enforcement of regulations in the sector, such as thwarting higher fines for schools which opened in defiance of regulations, significant sections of the community particularly among the hassidic sector, are still angry about the 12-month interruption to regular haredi life.
On the other side of the divide is a smaller group of people, largely among the non-hassidic “Lithuanian” community, especially those who fall into the “modern haredi” category, who do think the party did not do enough to urge compliance with coronavirus regulations and who are partly responsible for the high death rate in the community’s elderly population.
Given this internal criticism, the UTJ leadership has been understandably worried about the potential affect on its electoral success come Tuesday.
The always extremely high ultra-Orthodox turnout might be negatively impacted. Worse still, voters might abscond to other parties, particularly Betzalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party, a far-right, religiously ultra-conservative outfit which is attractive to some ultra-Orthodox voters.
Indeed, because of the anger and frustration felt by UTJ among some of its core constituents, the party’s campaign has emphasized ultra-Orthodox identity, with ads appealing to voters with the slogan “first and foremost haredi.”
The party has also conducted a series of small conferences with the leading rabbis of the sector who have emphasized the importance of voting UTJ.
“There are people who have claims, demands, say they are not getting what they deserve. These are personal issues,” said Rabbi Gerson Edelstein, one of the two leading rabbis of the sector, earlier this week.
“Otherwise, things will be worse, there will be terrible decrees. There is no other choice but to vote for United Torah Judaism.”
And the UTJ MKs have acknowledged the frustration of their voters.
“I am not innocent of mistakes and we accept the criticism positively,” said UTJ Uri Maklev in a recent campaign video.
These concerns are compounded for UTJ by the change in the political constellation of the religious-Zionist parties.
In the last election, Smotrich ran on a joint list with Naftali Bennett who is considered by the hard-line component of the religious-Zionist sector to be liberal on religious matters.
This led to a situation in which as many as 20,000 voters from the hard-line religious-Zionist community voted for UTJ, more than half a Knesset seat’s worth of votes.
Now that Smotrich has ditched Bennett those hard-line religious-Zionists will abandon UTJ and vote for the Religious Zionist Party.
So does all this mean that UTJ is about to suffer a severe shock at the polling booths come Tuesday?
The consensus amongst analysts, including those not well disposed to UTJ, is not really.
Meni Shwartz, a prominent ultra-Orthodox communications strategist, says he does not think there will be any great movement of ultra-Orthodox voters away from UTJ, arguing that the disappointment is restricted to the MKs and will not translate into revenge against the party, due to deeply ingrained voting patterns in the community.
He also notes that in most elections a significant, but not large, percentage of ultra-Orthodox voters vote for non-haredi parties such as the Likud or the far-right Kahanist party Otzma Yehudit, which in this election is part of the Religious Zionist Party.
Shwartz says that in this election those voters, including a significant portion of Chabad voters as well as some of the “modern haredim,” are likely to vote for Smotrich’s party, but since they do not generally vote for UTJ anyway it will not have a big effect on UTJ’s electoral fortunes.
Maintaining its current seven seats in the Knesset would be a reasonable outcome, says Shwartz. Dropping back to six would be seen as something of a disaster, although not one he expects.
Yaakov Veeder, an ultra-Orthodox member of the Bnei Brak municipal council for the Likud party explains that UTJ has for decades inculcated the message into the ultra-Orthodox public that voting for the party is a critical part of being ultra-Orthodox.
“This is a crazy phenomenon where people oppose someone but vote for them anyway. But by issuing this message that the only thing that makes you ultra-Orthodox is voting for UTJ, not Torah or mitzvot, this will probably be expressed again despite what happened during the corona period,” said Veeder.
He also pointed out that the acerbic rhetoric used by Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman against the ultra-Orthodox sector has helped ameliorate the negative sentiment towards UTJ by furthering the feeling that the haredi community is under attack. Liberman bestowed bountiful material for their campaign charge that the sector is under threat.
During the conference at his home earlier this week, Edelstein specifically mentioned incitement against the community as another reason to vote for UTJ.
Israel Frey, an ultra-Orthodox journalist who has been prominent in his criticism of the community’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, adds one final element which he says, has in the past and will continue in this current election, guarantee that haredi disappointment in UTJ does not translate into significant electoral losses.
“We are educated and brought up with the idea that we have the right to vote but not the right to choose,” said Frey.
“Voting is a great religious obligation. You must follow the rabbis’ commands, it’s a mitzvah,” and the haredi public is essentially captive to this narrative, he said.
The religious imperative that the rabbis and politicians have instilled in the ultra-Orthodox community to vote for the ultra-Orthodox parties, as well as the assertion that voting for these parties is part and parcel of being haredi will likely ensure that internal criticism of UTJ will not be felt by the party at the ballot box.