United Torah Judaism's Election Campaign Enters the 21st Century

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Ultra-Orthodox men stand beneath a section of the security barrier outside Rachel's tomb in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, November 4, 2014.Credit: Reuters

It’s Thursday afternoon at the United Torah Judaism’s new election headquarters in Petah Tikva. The smell of cholent wafts through the conference room, where several men are eating the glatt kosher lunch they ordered in. They are here to assign manpower to the polling stations and must finish by the end of the day.

A mixture of Hebrew and Yiddish fills the hallways, and occasionally the party’s new jingle is heard on a staff member’s cell phone. The jingle, released last week, is one of the signs that the party is finally waking up and joining the election campaign.

While its rivals for the ultra-Orthodox vote, Shas and Eli Yishai’s Yahad, set up offices and launched campaigns weeks ago, UTJ opened its central headquarters only two weeks ago. The party’s debts from the previous election led to arguments about how to allocate its shrunken publicity budget – whether to focus its campaign on the Haredi community or try to address the general public – leading to paralysis of the campaign headquarters.

But things were starting to move toward the end of last week. After the release of the jingle, which the party hopes will be a hit at Haredi weddings and a popular ringtone, last Friday there was an election campaign event in Bnei Brak held by the non-Hasidic Degel Hatorah faction of the party. At the event, the elderly Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Steinman called on voters to be partners in sanctifying God’s name. The party hopes that such events, along with similar ones to be held by the various Hasidic courts, will bring voters out in droves.

The 19th Knesset was almost unbearable for UTJ, which, from the opposition benches, found itself absorbing blow after blow against its constituency, including cuts to yeshivas and kollels for married men, the canceling of income support for married yeshiva students, and the biggest red flag of all, the new draft law, which will regulate draft deferrals and exemptions and threatens yeshiva students who refuse to serve in the army with criminal sanctions. The party knows it can’t afford another term in the opposition.

That’s the idea behind the party’s main campaign slogan: “A choice for generations, or weeping for generations.” Campaign manager Shaya Itzkowitz, of the Results advertising agency, says, “We want to say that the way you vote today can have an impact on your children and your grandchildren. We show them what happened during the past two years, when UTJ was not at the power center, and how decades’ worth of achievements went down the drain.”

Reaching out

That’s also why the party is appealing for the first time to many groups it had previously ignored. Its “periphery headquarters” will address secular and traditional voters who in some way or other benefited from the party’s activities; religious-Zionists who are dissatisfied with the direction of Habayit Hayehudi; and Shas voters who, after the death of the revered Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, may be thinking of changing their vote. The party will thus hold election events in cities where few Haredim live, like Kfar Saba, Or Yehuda and Modi’in.

For the first time, the party also has a Facebook page, which is being run by secular supporters of the party, “since with all due respect,” a party source said, “Internet and UTJ don’t go together.”

“This year the campaign is somewhat different,” conceded the party’s media adviser, Yerach Tucker. “This is because Eli Yishai is eating into us, and also because there are Haredim who feel they aren’t represented – like Haredim who work, Chabadnikim upset because we didn’t declare that we’ll go with [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. Because the media are different, we have to get into it. Our public is exposed to WhatsApp and broader media outlets than in the past.”

The party’s new engagement with social media was evident last week after the release of the state comptroller’s report on the housing crisis. Within 90 minutes, the party distributed a video on WhatsApp of leading party MKs Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni criticizing former Finance Minister Yair Lapid for his failures in dealing with the housing shortage. “Neither Gafni nor Litzman have never starred in a campaign video, certainly not on the Web,” said Tucker. “This is the call of the hour.”

Describing the difference between the campaign aimed at the Haredi community and the one aimed at the general public, Itzkowitz says:

“In the Haredi sector you don’t have to introduce your social activist side, it’s self understood. We focus on the risk of what could happen. Yes, you do work on people’s fears and their hearts.”

By contrast, he says that to the general public, the line will be, “We may be dossim [slang for strictly observant]. But we are also socially conscious, no less than you.”

The party is also starting to get its Election Day apparatus up and running. According to logistics head Menahem Shapira, deputy mayor of Bnei Brak, most of the party’s voters don’t need to be convinced to support the party, they just have to get to the polls. So the party’s Election Day program includes offering rides to voters, including yeshiva students who study far from home and have to be brought back to their hometowns where they are registered to vote.

“The transport of voters from city to city is a crazy arrangement,” says Shapira. There is help getting disabled voters to the polls, and babysitting provided by high school girls who will watch children so that their mothers can vote.

But the most important arrangements, says Shapira, are those made for men to study Torah in various synagogues to generate divine “merits” for the party’s success, and the women who take it upon themselves to complete the recitation of the entire book of Tehillim (Psalms) on Election Day on the party’s behalf.

“We finish tens of thousands of books of Tehillim on Election Day; that’s the secret of our success,” he says.

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