Victory or Not, Losing the Hasidim Made the Jerusalem Mayoral Race Tough for Moshe Leon

The Council of Torah Sages decided not to support either Leon or his secular rival Ofer Berkovitch, in effect freeing some 30,000 voters to make up their own minds

An sign promoting Moshe Leon on bus in Jerusalem, November 12, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

The mayoral race in Jerusalem, to be settled in Tuesday’s runoff, will be closer than appeared immediately after the first round two weeks ago. Despite multiple attempts, Moshe Leon, a former director general of the Prime Minister’s Office under Benjamin Netanyahu, failed to snag the endorsement of Hasidic party Agudat Yisrael.

On Monday evening, the party’s Council of Torah Sages decided not to support either Leon or his secular rival Ofer Berkovitch, in effect freeing some 30,000 voters to make up their own minds.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, sources in the capital’s Hasidic community said at least some of these voters would opt for Berkovitch, who could only benefit from the anxiety, if not alarm, felt by many of the city’s non-ultra-Orthodox voters at the prospect of a Leon victory.

>> The distance between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv has never been greater | Opinion ■ No matter who is elected mayor, secular Jerusalem has already lost | Analysis

Hundreds of volunteers took to non-ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods to get out the vote — a task made harder by the fact that the runoff, unlike the nationwide local elections two weeks earlier, was not a paid holiday and the polls opened later. Results were expected by early Wednesday morning.

Leon’s campaign also stepped up its efforts. This included a rare political rally at the Western Wall, led by rabbis Chaim Kanievsky and Shalom Cohen, the spiritual leaders of the Degel Hatorah faction of the United Torah Judaism party and Shas, respectively. Throughout the day, rabbis and Leon flooded ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, social media with exhortations to vote.

The 2018 Jerusalem election will presumably be remembered as a sea change in ultra-Orthodox politics. The split between Hasidic and non-Hasidic (“Lithuanian”) Haredim, along with the independence that many voters have shown, have created a new situation. This was evident Monday afternoon at the Haredi headquarters of Berkovitch’s Hitorerut ticket.

There were around a dozen people at the Jaffa Road headquarters, including the former Shas activist Avi Ifrach, two "Lithuanian” Haredim, one Belz Hasid and one Hasid from the Shlomei Emunim faction. Standing to the side was a young married “Lithuanian” yeshiva student, who was clearly there as a spy from Leon’s campaign.

That didn’t alter the conversation. All the activists were young ultra-Orthodox men, all were determined to help Berkovitch, the secular candidate, and all, except for Ifrach, requested anonymity. Some of them scoffed at being called “new Haredim” — Haredi men who work for a living instead of studying Torah. But all of them feared being “outed” as Berkovitch campaigners.

“I felt we were pushing other groups out of Jerusalem, and that’s not the Jerusalem where my grandmother was raised,” Ifrach said, with another Hasid adding: “People decided it was time to decide for themselves.”

According to a third Hasid, “There are people who want to learn English, who want core studies” — the language, science and math that are shortchanged or absent from Haredi schools. “But they can’t because the ‘operators’ decided it’s forbidden. With Berkovitch we can get all that.”

According to a fourth Hasid, “The question in the election is whether the mayor serves the residents or the political operators in the Haredi community.”

Two very angry Haredi women suddenly interrupted. “Shame, blasphemers, the Gur Hasidim are one thing, they’ll get Schneller,” one said, referring to a large building lot in the city’s Haredi neighborhoods. “But you’re Sephardi, what are you doing here?” The question was addressed to Ifrach.

“I’m a Shasnik,” Ifrach said, to which the woman responded, “Give me your name, I want to speak with [Shas Chairman Arye] Dery. If Rabbi Ovadia were alive, he would spit on you,” she shouted, referring to the party's late spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

The activists’ efforts to engage the women in dialogue failed. “I don’t want to talk to wicked people,” one woman said. After a few more exchanges, the women left, but not before one said: “I don’t think Leon is serious, but I do whatever my rabbi tells me.”

Ifrach said after they left: “We don’t go against the Torah. If someone comes whose rabbi told him to vote for Leon, we don’t persuade him; I tell him do what your rabbi says.”

The Belz Hasid said he estimated that around half his yeshiva classmates would vote, and that 90 percent would pick Berkovitch.

On Monday night, Leon seemed to admit that he had lost the Hasidic vote. “I have a deep understanding of the position you are in,” he said in a recording sent to the phones of Haredi voters. “But only someone like me, who has sacrificed a lot, can call you with love and with a call of affection. Help me be elected mayor.”

Speaking to Haaretz, Leon said: “Nothing is perfect, but most of the cards have fallen the way I wanted them to. From my perspective, what’s important is the wide support I received from the religious-Zionist movement and from Likud. I’m working hard but I’m very relaxed.”