Analysis

What Israel's Local Election Results Mean for Jerusalem, Israel and Jews Everywhere

Ultra-Orthodox communities are increasingly divided, with a small but growing number of young people openly defying their rabbis and voting for non-Haredi candidates – with major implications for the Diaspora

Moshe Leon celebrates after the first round of Jerusalem election, October 31, 2018.
Emil Salman

The second round of local elections in Israel is over. All the runoffs between mayoral candidates have been called, except for the largest one where the most attention was focused: Jerusalem.

Moshe Leon has celebrated his victory, but Ofer Berkovitch has yet to concede and is still clinging to the slender hope that the yet to be counted soldiers’ and hospital votes – as well potential legal challenges regarding irregularities in voting and counting – could somehow overturn Mayor-elect Leon’s 51.5-48.5 percent winning margin. The chances of that happening are next to nil.

The divided city of Jerusalem was split right down the middle in this runoff. Yet another tectonic crack in the capital’s unstable foundations.

Of course, this was another local election in which over a third of Jerusalem’s population, its Palestinian residents, chose to boycott the voting – as they have done in every election since 1967, when the city was unilaterally “unified.”

But Jewish Jerusalem is split as well: Between ultra-Orthodox and secular; between nationalists and liberals; between those who voted for the candidate their rabbis told them to vote for and those who voted on their own accord; and between those who voted and those who stayed at home.

Two-thirds of Jerusalemites, Jews and Arabs, united in not going to polling stations. But the divisions didn’t end there. In both rounds of the election, the religious communities split.

The “Lithuanian” ultra-Orthodox fell out acrimoniously with their erstwhile Hasidic allies. There were breakaway factions within both the Lithuanian and Haredi-Sephardi camps, who fought viciously. The growing divide within the national-religious community, between modern Orthodox voters and the much more conservative Haredi-Leumi, was pronounced as well.

It seems that secular Jerusalem was split as well: Between the committed liberal voters, who worked frantically to bring out the vote, and their apathetic friends who didn’t bother showing up.

Jerusalem is just like any other place where turnout decides the result – but the divisions are felt so much deeper.

And in the end, the result may not make that much difference in any real terms to life in Jerusalem. It’s not like we were living in San Francisco before these elections. Even if Ofer Berkovitch had scraped together a victory, Jerusalem would still be the poorest, dirtiest, most religious and most divided of Israel’s cities.

Mayoral candidate Moshe Lion, left, and his wife pose for the media as they cast their votes at a polling station in Jerusalem, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. Israelis were choosing their next mayors in dozens of locations across the country Tuesday, with the main focus on the largest city of Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
Mahmoud Illean,AP

Will it get worse under Leon? He is not ultra-Orthodox himself – the Haredi community was incapable of uniting behind a candidate of its own. The new mayor is himself modern Orthodox, but beholden to the Haredi politicians who secured his victory. He doesn’t even have his own party on the city council and will have to work with a Haredi-dominated coalition, which will control all the main portfolios.

Are there any silver linings? Leon is much too close to senior politicians with a history of corruption, but his connections will also help him secure funding for the city. Not that funding is the problem. National governments have always thrown money at Jerusalem, but the cash hasn’t solved anything.

Leon is also experienced in government bureaucracy and could conceivably do something to alleviate Jerusalem’s acute shortage of affordable housing. What are the prospects of him doing this, rather than favoring the contractors building luxury apartments for foreign part-time residents? And even if that works, as he and all the other candidates promised to greatly increase the number of new housing units, how evenly will these be spread across Jerusalem’s different communities?

There is one definite silver lining for the part of Jerusalem that isn’t sure whether to call itself pluralistic or liberal: The first round of voting for council seats and Berkovitch’s near-victory in the second round have proven they may be a minority, but are still a force to be reckoned with.

Berkovitch’s Hitorerut (Awakening) party is now the largest in city hall and, along with other, smaller parties that make up over a third of the council, will be a strong opposition over the next five years.

But the real problems facing Jerusalem – the Jewish-Arab divide; the lack of affordable housing; poverty and unemployment; and a creaking infrastructure – are way too big for the mayor and council.

Perhaps the worst news in these elections is how inconsequential Jerusalem’s real affairs are to politicians at the national level. The much-heralded move of the U.S. and other embassies to Israel’s capital has absolutely no relevance to the lives of ordinary Jerusalemites.

The fact that half the parties in the Knesset didn’t bother fielding a slate for the city council, and two thirds didn’t endorse any mayoral candidate, shows how concerned they really are with Jerusalem. Until a decade ago, the candidates for mayor were national league heavy hitters. In the second round on Tuesday, Jerusalemites were given the choice between Berkovitch – a 35-year-old with no real experience – and a shadowy accountant who arrived in town only five years.

Ominous signs for Netanyahu

But if the answers for Jerusalem’s predicament can only be found at the national level, what, if anything, does this race and the rest of the local elections mean for national politics?

As a rule, local elections are not a good barometer for what we can expect in the next Knesset election. And even when they are, the signs can only be seen with hindsight. Within 12 months, probably less, Israel will be going to the polls again. What can we learn from these two rounds of nationwide local voting?

There are a number of potentially ominous signs for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the far-from-stellar performance of Likud slates and candidates across the country. They weren’t wiped out and enjoyed a few victories in smaller places, but performed poorly or failed to present in any of the big cities. Another sign could be the much larger number of incumbents losing than usual.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voting in Jerusalem's local elections last month
Emil Salman

But it’s still impossible to predict if these are trends. Likud and its leader will contend that national elections are a very different set of electoral parameters.

One feature of these local elections that is almost certain to impact in some way on the Knesset election, and the subsequent coalition-building process, is the fragmentation of Haredi parties in Jerusalem and other cities.

In Jerusalem, the ultra-Orthodox community ran in five separate parties and supported three different mayoral candidates. They were divided in other cities as well. In Beit Shemesh – which has a much higher proportion of Haredim than Jerusalem – the ultra-Orthodox incumbent lost when thousands of Haredi voters refused to vote for him. In other cities, they were forced into non-Orthodox coalitions.

Two of the ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and the Lithuanian Degel Hatorah, did well in Jerusalem – both in city council seats and by securing Leon’s victory. But they had to squeeze every drop out of their well-oiled and experienced election machines to do so. They needed to wheel out 90-year-old rabbis to exhort the faithful to vote and to use every dirty trick of fake campaigning, even dragging patients suffering from dementia out of their retirements homes, to pull it off.

Shas’ Arye Dery, one of Leon’s chief patrons, and Degel’s Moshe Gafni are the big winners – and their Hasidic rival Yaakov Litzman is the loser. But all it needed was 3,000 votes to go the other way and the tables would have turned.

The Haredi voting machine, utilizing the blessings of old rabbis, won this time, but only thanks to non-Haredi apathy and the votes of thousands of non-Haredi traditional Sephardim and Haredi-nationalists. Its limitations now are clearer. As it is, large numbers of Haredi voters voted for Berkovitch, in defiance of their rabbis.

The split within the Haredi community has not been this deep for 30 years.

Hasidim vs 'Lithuanian': The split within the Haredi community has not been this deep for 30 years.
Olivier Fitoussi

The implication for national politics is that Netanyahu can no longer rely on a steady alliance of the ultra-Orthodox parties that have been the bedrock of three of four of his coalition governments. He will have to negotiate with each of them separately in future, and may not be able to rely on all of them.

But the long-term trends are much more important than how Netanyahu forms his next coalition, and reach beyond Israel.

The majority of ultra-Orthodox voters still followed their rabbis’ orders – but those rabbis no longer act in unison. And a small but increasing number of young Haredi men and women are openly defying their rabbis, their fathers and husbands, and voting for non-Haredi parties and candidates.

This was evident not only in the polls and on the streets of Jerusalem, but in another Haredi stronghold: Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv. Here, a local Likud slate made up of young Haredi activists surprisingly gained seats on the city council. This goes beyond politics and beyond Israel.

In the last two generations, modern health care, ultra-high birthrates and the welfare state have led to the exponential growth of ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel, the United States and a few other Western countries.

While the definition of ultra-Orthodox and their actual numbers are unclear, their proportion in the global Jewish population has certainly passed 10 percent and is growing. But modern medicine has also extended the lives of their leaders, while the internet and social media have subjected these rabbis to unprecedented scrutiny – and criticism – within their own communities.

The result is a very young ultra-Orthodox community with very old rabbis, who do not enjoy the same level of reverence and respect their predecessors had, and who have almost no knowledge of the lives young ultra-Orthodox men and women lead, and the challenges they face.

Rabbinical authority and hegemony is eroding. The results are already being seen not only in elections, but in the opening up of the younger ultra-Orthodox generation to secular education and greater participation in Israeli society and Jewish life in the Diaspora, beyond their once closed-off communities.

This will have a profound effect on every level of Israeli and Jewish life, everywhere, and the local elections of 2018 were a milestone on the way.