The calm atmosphere in the heart of Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood as the polls opened on Tuesday did not match the mood of the slogans that screamed out from the billboards.
“I beg you!!” said a tortured look on the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s face on an ad for Shas. “I have one great regret! Know that this is a part of my soul!”
United Torah Judaism didn’t neglect paying its respects to its dead rabbis, with a small ad quoting the vision of Rabbi Yishayahu Karlitz, the spiritual leader who died 67 years ago and who recommends voting first thing in the morning, even before reciting the morning prayers. But the synagogues on the street were still full, and nobody was rushing to the polling booth located at a school at the end of the street.
Har Nof, one of the more well-to-do Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem, the seat of the Shas party leadership, well reflects the mood of the community. Most of the residents’ voting preferences can be categorized by ethnic background – the Sephardim vote for Shas, the Ashkenazim vote Gimel, the Torah Judaism party. Only Gershon Levy, a longtime U.S. immigrant, says this division of loyalties doesn’t suit him.
“I have nice neighbors from both sides. So one time I vote for Shas and the next I vote Gimel,” he says. “Thank God, in the past two years I’ve had many opportunities to show gratitude to my neighbors.”
But there’s some lack of discipline at the margins, and there’s also Smotrich – the far-right Religious Zionism party led by MK Bezalel Smotrich.
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“I will vote for Gimel because I do what the rabbis say without any questions or doubts,” said Hillel Ehrenfeld, a student at a Lithuanian kollel (adult yeshiva) in the neighborhood. “This doesn’t mean that I have any faith in the Haredi politicians. I expect more of them. I see that the right-wingers for Smotrich fight harder for the rights of our community and for safeguarding religion. If there was no such clear instructions given by the rabbis, I wouldn’t be voting for Gimel.”
A young neighborhood resident who asked not to be identified said he thinks “the majority sit and clench their teeth at home.” He says, “The younger generation feels freer, and there is a rising tendency against voting for the Haredi party. Especially after seeing in the past year how it took [UTJ’s Moshe] Gafni and [Yaakov] Litzman a long time to wake up and shout about the incitement against the Haredi community. I will not vote for Gimel anymore as long as the two of them are its representatives. Perhaps when they swap them for younger lawmakers. In the meantime Smotrich and [party colleague Itamar] Ben-Gvir make an excellent alternative.”
The senior Haredi leaders don’t admit they have a problem, at least not officially. “I don’t believe that any of our young people would vote otherwise,” says Rabbi David Yosef, a member of Shas’ Council of Torah Sages. “At the moment of truth they will all vote for Shas,” he says at the synagogue built at the site of his late father Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef’s home.
Another worshipper who asks not to be identified thinks otherwise. “There will be many voting for Smotrich, and that’s not terrible because it may rescue the right. The most important thing is for there not to be a left-wing government that uproots Judaism from the country.”
In addition to them, there are those who are not happy with religious Zionist penetration of protected Haredi space. Overnight a mysterious source placed piles of special newspapers in the neighborhood with the headline being “Them or us – critical information if you’re considering whether to vote for the Religious Zionism party.” Inside the newspaper are strongly worded articles and so-called investigations proving how the Smotriches have an “opposite agenda” to the Haredi viewpoint on a list of issues. A Haredi person who votes for Smotrich, the anonymous publicists write, “will turn into a sinner by means of a slip of paper.”