Analysis: Haredi voting signals weakening of sector's political establishment

Watershed event for haredi politics will likely have far-reaching implications on national level.

man votes in election 298.88 (photo credit: )
man votes in election 298.88
(photo credit: )
No matter what the final results, the 2008 municipal elections will go down in history as a watershed event for haredi politics that will likely have far-reaching implications on the national level. For the first time in Israeli political history, the normally obedient haredi voters showed signs of rebellion. In two haredi centers - Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh - there is a significant haredi contingent that has come out openly against the haredi political establishment. The most embattled by far is the Ger Hassidic sect. Until now Ger, the single largest Hassidic sect in Israel, effectively controlled Agudath Yisrael. But in this election there are signs that Ger has lost the support of a large segment of the haredi vote and may lose its political hegemony. A growing number of haredim feel alienated from Ger's stringent interpretations of Jewish practice. For instance, Ger's Council for the Purity of the Camp has been spearheading a campaign for complete gender separation on buses and in public places such as post offices located in haredi neighborhoods. But more importantly, large segments within haredi society feel disenfranchised. Chabad Hassidim, Sephardim who are not represented by Shas, Lithuanian haredim who work for a living and those who are new to haredi Orthodoxy (hozrim b'tshuva) have consistently suffered discrimination. Their boys aren't accepted to the good Talmudei Torah [religious elementary schools] and yeshivot. Their daughters aren't admitted to the quality high schools. They watch as young men and women with the "right" family connections get jobs in prestigious Torah institutions while their own children are left behind, lacking in addition the required secular education needed to integrate in the modern Israeli labor market. Many have begun to question their obligations to a rabbinic leadership that rejects them and offers them no future. Many also are beginning to question rabbinic opinion on mundane matters such as municipal elections. As one haredi put it, "What do rabbis know about politics? Do I ask a rabbi what kind of floor cleaner I should use? We need a separation between religion and politics. I don't want rabbis to tell me what kind of cellular phone to use or where to sit on the bus. "I live in Bnei Brak. I am very active in my community and I help a lot of people. But I can't run in local elections because I don't have the right connections with the people who control internal rabbinic politics. In the end, the best man isn't chosen for the job." Meir Porush is trying to capitalize on this large swathe of the disenchanted haredi public. Historically, Porush's Shlomei Emunim faction within Agudath Yisrael has represented small hassidic sects. But in this election additional groups of haredim have seen in Porush an alternative to the haredi rabbinic establishment. Although he was careful not to do so openly, Porush utilized the Internet in his campaign. Although use of the Internet is officially prohibited except when needed to make a living, Porush gave an interview to the popular Behaderei Haredim (In Haredi Rooms) chat room. Behaderei Haredim is a forum readily used by disgruntled haredim to vent their frustrations. It is one of the examples of an increasingly independent haredi populace. Meanwhile, the rebbe of Ger, Ya'acov Aryeh Alter, aware of the threat that Porush presents, has called on his hassidim not to vote for him, even though he's the city's only haredi candidate. Ger enjoys the support of the Boyan Hassidic sect, which is still angry at Porush for bucking its authority in the Betar municipal elections. The Viznitz and Sanz hassidic sects are also backing Ger for political reasons. But an absurd situation has been created in which a coalition of hassidic sects is opposing Jerusalem's only haredi mayoral candidate. In Friday's Hamodia, a weekly controlled by the hassidic sect, Alter placed a front page notice calling to vote for Agudath Yisrael. Conspicuously absent was the rebbe's electoral command regarding the mayoral race. Porush's name simply was not mentioned. The rebbe's omission was particularly striking since it was accompanied by an ad publicizing the opinions of a list of leading haredi rabbis who specifically called to vote not only for Agudath Yisrael and for Porush. Even Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the most revered halachic authority among Lithuanian haredi Jewry, who is known to oppose Porush, nevertheless at the last minute and halfheartedly called on his followers to support him in the elections since he was the only haredi candidate. In Beit Shemesh there was an even more radical development. The same coalition of Chabad, non-Shas Sephardim, Lithuanians who work and hozrim b'tshuva have banded together to form their own political party, called TOV. The party has also received strong support from American haredim, who aren't used to rabbis who tell them how to vote in political elections. The haredi establishment is afraid that TOV, which ran a list in haredi Betar and won a seat on the local council, will transform itself into a national party that will weaken United Torah Judaism's electoral strength. There are signs that a party like TOV would succeed in the haredi Elad and perhaps in Modi'in Illit as it did in Betar. And if Porush loses in his race against Barkat, there is always the chance that he will establish and independent party ahead of the upcoming national elections. On the other hand, if he wins, the anti-establishment movement within haredi society will be strengthened. Either way this municipal election will undoubtedly be remembered as a turning point in haredi politics.