Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his expected partner, Yair Lapid, have pledged to focus on military service and other state-and-religion issues. As a result, United Torah Judaism, an ultra-Orthodox party, says it may not join the next coalition.
But even if UTJ enters the opposition, the party has been strengthened. For the first time ever, the ultra-Orthodox community’s growth has been translated into votes; the party has won seven Knesset seats.
Shas, at least half of whose constituents aren’t Haredi, remained stable with 11 Knesset seats, around where it has been for the past decade. UTJ got more than 190,000 votes, 28.5 percent more than in the 2009 election.
The ultra-Orthodox coalition has become the most powerful political force in Jerusalem (22 percent of the vote) and in Beit Shemesh (28 percent) cities that once belonged to Likud. UTJ runs the show in the Haredi towns Bnei Brak, Betar Ilit, Modi’in Ilit and Rechasim. Judging by demography, the party has far from exhausted its potential power. These figures are especially surprising considering the Haredi community’s passive response to the election campaign and the Haredi parties’ unprecedented infighting.
The sectionalism was blurred by last-minute agreements. The Lithuanian Jerusalem faction dissolved the party it had set up to draw votes from UTJ, and its leader called on his followers to vote for UTJ. One of the Hasidic Vizhnitz sects joined this call at the last moment. Also, the bad blood between UTJ’s Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah factions over number 6 and number 7 on the slate was cleared up when the party won seven seats.
The figures are also surprising in view of the rebels in the ultra-Orthodox community; for example, the ones who work for a living or join the Israel Defense Forces. These “new Haredim,” who are often discriminated against in Haredi society, were a burning election issue; some of them voted for non-Haredi parties. In Modi’in Ilit, for example, more votes were cast for non-Haredi parties Likud and Habayit Hayehudi, and for Koah Lehashpia headed by Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak, than in 2009.
Still, it’s taking a while for the party whose voters belong to the fastest-growing community in Israel (and one of the fastest-growing in the world) to grow in the Knesset. In the 2003 elections, UTJ received 135,087 votes and five seats. In 2006 it received 147,091 votes and six seats, and in 2009 it received 147,954 votes and five seats. This week it received 189,931 votes and seven seats.
UTJ expects to take in the Haredi vote because of its constituents’ blind obedience to their rabbis. The community’s natural growth is estimated at 4.5 percent a year, compared with 1.5 percent for other Israelis. This means the Haredi electorate was supposed to rise 18 percent (this does not include children under 18). But UTJ increased its vote total 28.5 percent. This time around the Haredi leaders brought more voters to the polls and urged other communities like the Breslau Hasidim to vote for UTJ.
For example, in Betar Ilit there are 16,500 eligible voters; UTJ expected some 7,000 votes. The town was divided into 20 Ashkenazi communities, with the community headquarters supposed to register everyone over 18. Each community was told to report to the party’s central headquarters on each voter, and anyone who didn’t vote received telephone calls until he voted.
Ultimately UTJ received many more votes in Betar Ilit than it expected 8,251. “The high growth rate of the Haredi community took time to be reflected in the polls,” said Gilad Malach, a doctoral candidate specializing in Haredi society at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In the ‘90s the immigration from the former Soviet Union balance this trend, he said.