Israel’s religious right, the conventional wisdom goes, is a powerful force on the rise. And although it represents only a minority of the electorate, it wields undue influence on the political landscape.
Yet last week’s election results paint a different picture. Electorally, at least, the religious right suffered a major setback on September 17. In the previous April 9 election, the religious Zionist community (the Israeli equivalent of America’s Modern Orthodox Jewry) threw its weight behind two separate parties: The more religiously rigid Union of Right-Wing Parties, headed by Rabbi Rafi Peretz; and the more liberal Hayamin Hehadash, headed by Naftali Bennett. The latter did not cross the 3.25 percent electoral threshold, and the two slates combined won a total of 298,066 votes.
So as not to waste votes again, the two rosters merged before the do-over election into a new ticket called Yamina. For the first time ever, a woman, Ayelet Shaked, was appointed head of the party that represents Israel’s religious Zionist community. Even more extraordinary was the fact that she is secular.
By most accounts, Yamina had a disappointing showing last week, winning only 7 seats (much fewer than had initially been predicted in the polls) and totalling 260,655 votes.
Between April and September, then, the parties representing the religious right community in Israel lost 12.5 percent of their voters. How did that happen, and where did those votes go?
Daniel Goldman, the former chairman of Gesher — an organization dedicated to building bridges between religious and secular Jews in Israel, and no connection to the Israeli political party of the same name — attributes the downturn to a combination of long-term trends and developments unique to this particular election.
Yamina represented a wide spectrum of views within Orthodoxy: On one extreme, support for a halakhic state (based on Jewish religious law) and for conversion therapy; and, on the other, enhanced roles for women in religious life and greater acceptance of the LGBTQ community.
Because of these seemingly contradictory positions, Goldman argues, Yamina ended up turning away more voters than it attracted. “Instead of getting synergy by combining these groups, you actually got reverse synergy because each of these groups don’t like to be identified with the other,” he says.
“Voters who supported Hayamin Hehadash in the last election couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a party that included Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich,” he continues, referring to the most prominent and controversial names on the Union of Right-Wing Parties slate. “And those who voted for the Union of Right-Wing Parties in the last election couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Bennett and Shaked.”
Goldman, a former co-chairman of the religious Zionist youth movement World Bnei Akiva, believes Yamina lost many votes in the do-over election to Likud and, possibly, also to the centrist Kahol Lavan — which emerged as the largest party with 33 seats (one more than Likud).
But that is part of a much longer-term trend, he explains, in which growing numbers of religious Zionist voters, himself included, have been opting for the larger nonreligious parties: those with the potential to lead a government.
“I would say that about 50 percent of the religious Zionist community no longer votes in a sectoral way,” he says. “When you compare that to the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities, it’s a huge share. There’s been lots of talk over the years about whether there is really a raison d’être anymore for a party that represents the religious Zionist community. I think those voices will grow now.”
Tehila Friedman, the former chairwoman of Ne’emanei Torah V’Avodah — a movement that represents the moderate camp in the religious Zionist community — concurs. “For my parents’ generation it was important that there was a party out there advocating for our schools and our youth movements,” she says. “I’m not sure that’s relevant any longer. In fact, to the contrary. The role of a party that represents a specific sector is to make sure that the schools and institutions belonging to that sector get more money than others. Well, as far as I’m concerned, that’s not moral.”
Friedman was one of several members of the religious Zionist community to run on the Kahol Lavan slate in the last two elections. Placed number 38 on the roster, she did not get in.
Kahol Lavan’s main campaign promise in the September election was to form a “broad-based secular” government. Despite this ostensibly anti-religious message, Friedman believes the party owes three of its seats to religious voters. “What I’ve been told is that we won two of those seats in the April election and another last week,” she says.
Many of her religious friends, she adds, chose not to vote for the party that represented their community this time around. “Quite a few of them approached me on Facebook and WhatsApp, and told me they had voted for Hayamin Hehadash in April and were now either undecided or had decided to vote Kahol Lavan,” she relays.
A look at the ballot breakdown in communities known to have relatively progressive Orthodox enclaves would seem to bear this out. In Beit Shemesh and Givat Shmuel, as well as in many of the West Bank settlements located in the Gush Etzion bloc, Kahol Lavan posted gains last week.
Yamina is the latest incarnation of the party once known as the National Religious Party (or Mafdal, based on its Hebrew acronym). At its peak in 1977, when it joined the first Likud government, the National Religious Party won 12 seats. Until then, it had partnered with all the Labor-led governments and embraced distinctly dovish positions. The party tied its record in 2013 after it was taken over by Bennett and renamed Habayit Hayehudi (“Jewish Home” in English).
Ahead of this year’s first election, Bennett and Shaked defected to form Hayamin Hehadash, citing the growing influence of radical rabbis in the party as grounds for their decision. They brought two other members of Habayit Hayehudi with them, and what remained of the original party was absorbed into the Union of Right-Wing Parties. Ever since 1977, the party affiliated with the religious Zionist community has also been the party most closely allied with the West Bank settler movement (whose members happen to be disproportionately religious).
Prof. Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, believes that growing numbers of religious voters are throwing their support behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud — rather than the party or parties representing their community — out of fear that a center-left government could be formed if Likud is not the largest party.
“They still have not recovered from the trauma of the early 1990s when a left-wing government brought about the Oslo Accords,” he says, referring to the agreement that was meant to pave the way to an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. “To avoid a similar nightmare, they prefer to vote for a party that doesn’t directly represent them.”
In addition, Sandler says, Netanyahu succeeded in persuading religious right-wingers “that he represents them better than anyone else. And to a certain extent, he’s right. If you look at the people he surrounds himself with — the head of the Mossad, the head of the Shin Bet security service, the ambassador to the United States — they all wear knitted kippas.” Knitted, as opposed to black, kippas are considered a trademark of the religious Zionist community.
When Habayit Hayehudi was first launched as a political party, Nerya Knafo served as head of its youth division. He has since left Orthodoxy and in recent years has served as director of Jewish Pluralism Watch — a watchdog organization run by the Conservative movement in Israel.
The religious Zionist party performed poorly in its latest incarnation, he believes, because it did not have a clear message for voters. “What we had was a party made up of three different factions, the only common denominator being that they represent the religious Zionist community — and yet at they helm they’ve placed a woman who isn’t part of the community,” he says. “Rather than talk about what they stood for, they spent most of the campaign talking about ‘Netanyahu yes or Netanyahu no.’”
Unlike ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) voters, Knafo notes, religious Zionists tend to think more independently and, therefore, “need a better reason to vote for a party than that it is the party of the community.”
Another big mistake Yamina made, he says, is that it announced from the outset that it would recommend Netanyahu as prime minister.
“Many of their voters probably thought, ‘Why not just vote for Netanyahu?’” Knafo says. “ For others who don’t like Netanyahu, this was a reason to vote for another party.”
Otzma Yehudit, the far-right party founded by followers of the late Meir Kahane (the racist rabbi whose Kach party was outlawed more than 30 years ago), ran as part of the Union of Right-Wing Parties in April. But in the do-over election it ran on its own and failed to cross the electoral threshold. Knafo believes that had the Kahanist party run with Yamina, the latter would have suffered an even greater setback.
“I’m convinced that whatever additional voters Otzma Yehudit would have brought in, there would have been an even greater number of voters scared away,” he says. “So the fact that they failed to reach a deal with Otzma Yehudit probably helped Yamina in the final reckoning.”
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