Will High Court’s conversion ruling push Orthodox, right-wingers, to vote?

Some have argued that the ruling could even help the right-wing Orthodox parties in the coming election.

Haredi man voting 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Haredi man voting 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The High Court of Justice decision on non-Orthodox conversion last week ignited the always combustible warehouse of religious issues in the Jewish state at a highly sensitive time, little more than two weeks ahead of the next election.
The decision, granting citizenship to non-Israeli nationals who convert with the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements in Israel, kindled an outpouring of wrath from the ultra-Orthodox and hardline religious-Zionist parties.
And it was also used by populist Likud politicians to drum home their message of a liberal elite, led by the High Court, at war with the Jewish identity of the State of Israel.
Although the High Court decision was a big symbolic victory for the proponents of Jewish pluralism in Israel, it has a narrow, practical application which will affect possibly 150 people a year at most.
Given the sensitive nature of the issue, some have argued that the ruling could even help the right-wing Orthodox parties in the coming election.
At first glance, this theory has a ring of truth about it.
The Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party leapt on the High Court’s decision and the day after issued an incendiary video in which it mocked non-Orthodox Jews by showing images of dogs wearing Jewish prayer apparel and asserting that the High Court now considers them Jewish.
Just minutes after the decision the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party issued a campaign advertisement on social media warning voters that the choice was between “A Jewish state or a Reform state.”
Shas leader Aryeh Deri and UTJ leader Moshe Gafni called on voters to back them in the upcoming election so they can legislate to circumvent the High Court ruling, as did Religious Zionist Party leader Bezalel Smotrich who, in a similar vein to his ultra-Orthodox counterparts described the ruling as a dangerous threat to the Jewish character of the state.
Senior Likud politicians also lost no time in joining their ultra-Orthodox allies by alleging that the decision was another example of the Israeli liberal left trampling on traditional Jewish identity and values.
Coalition whip MK Miki Zohar tweeted, incorrectly, that the decision meant “any person around the world” could ask a Reform rabbi to convert them and then get Israeli citizenship and the right to immigrate “within 30 days.”
Zohar said this would mean Israel would soon neither be a Jewish state nor a democratic one.
Despite the coalition whip’s comments, the decision only applies to conversions done in Israel, while “any person around the world” has been able to convert through the Reform movement and immigrate to Israel since a High Court ruling in 1988.
Minister for Cyber and National Digital Matters MK David Amsalem went even further, tweeting mockingly that the Roman commander and emperor Vespasian who crushed the ancient Jewish revolt against Rome would have been very satisfied with the ruling, and was waiting for a “liberal and progressive ruling banning circumcision for abusing infants.”
There is no doubt therefore that the High Court decision has provided much grist for several types of mill, be they ultra-Orthodox, hardline religious-Zionist, or right-wing populist.
But is any of this actually going to send people out to the polls come election day?
The ultra-Orthodox parties regularly manage to turn out huge proportions of their constituents, in some ultra-Orthodox strongholds reaching more than an 82 % voter turnout, well in excess of the average voter turnout which in the March 2020 election was 71.5%.
Ultra-Orthodox voters are routinely told that voting for Shas and UTJ is a religious imperative, a sanctification of God’s name and a duty which will bring spiritual and material blessings upon the voter.
Additionally, UTJ and Shas have, though numerous election cycles, presented the elections as fateful events in which ultra-Orthodox values and the community’s lifestyle are under imminent threat.
The High Court decision on non-Orthodox conversion might play into that narrative, but given the electoral gains made by the ultra-Orthodox parties before this most recent decision and their historic ability to turnout their voters it seems unlikely that it will have much of an affect on their already impressively successful election strategies.
As for the Likud and its core voters, although animus towards liberal elites is without doubt a powerful motivating factor driving the party’s constituents, religion and state issues have only a low priority for them when it comes to voting motivation.
In a September 2019 poll, 60% of Likud voters said they favored civil marriage, yet voted for the Likud anyway despite knowing that the ultra-Orthodox and religious-Zionist parties would never allow legislation for civil marriage to pass.
And in January this year, an opinion poll for Channel 12 News found that a majority of right-wing voters supported excluding the ultra-Orthodox parties from the next government.
Furthermore, the conversion issue does not even have particular potency among the rank and file of ultra-Orthodox voters since it has so little bearing or immediate impact on their lives.
Members of the ultra-Orthodox community overwhelmingly do not know or interact with non-Orthodox Jews, much less think about marrying them.
They do not even respect the state’s Orthodox conversion authorities or consider them legitimate, with UTJ MK Yitzhak Pindrus opining this week that converts through the IDF’s Orthodox conversion program are “shiksas,” a yiddish word meaning non-Jewish woman but with heavy pejorative overtones.
A fight over ultra-Orthodox enlistment to the IDF or requiring the teaching of core curriculum subjects in ultra-Orthodox schools would be a far more compelling election issue than a remote issue about Reform or Masorti converts they will never meet.
While the High Court decision undoubtedly fed the prevailing narrative of the right-wing and Orthodox parties, it seems unlikely that this issue will be of particular benefit in getting voters to the ballot box.
Ultimately, the now entrenched and tribal affiliations of both sides of the political aisle surrounding the personality and leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are a greater factor than any substantive issue in this interminable election cycle, especially one as complex as the conversion issue.