Israel Election: Disappointed by ultra-Orthodox Parties, Haredim Secretly Defect to Far-right Smotrich

Smotrich's far-right Religious Zionism party has spotted a possible opportunity to fill the void caused by failing trust in the ultra-Orthodox community's leadership

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A Religious Zionism election poster featuring Bezalel Smotrich.
A Religious Zionism election poster featuring Bezalel Smotrich in Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

“If you could just not use my name,” Y., a 35-year-old resident of the ultra-Orthodox West Bank settlement of Modi’in Ilit requested. “I don’t want them to harass my children,” he said. “I don’t want them to start discriminating against us in school because they know I voted for Smotrich.”

For his part, in Jerusalem, Meir is willing to be identified by his first name. “I don’t want them to harass me, but anyone who knows me knows that I’m for Smotrich. If he hadn’t put a woman on his slate, I assure you that entire ultra-Orthodox communities would be voting for him.”

It’s no longer just happening on the margins of ultra-Orthodox or Haredi society, as it is known in Hebrew. Increasing numbers of Haredi voters say they have decided to forsake United Torah Judaism, Israel’s Ashkenazi Haredi Knesset faction, and vote instead for Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party. It’s even happening among voters who generally take guidance from their rabbis on how to vote.

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In the course of the past year of the cornavirus pandemic, a breach appears to has developed in the Haredi public’s trust in its elected representatives – and Smotrich is seeking to fill it. He has spotted what is thought to be sufficient hidden support in the Haredi community to hand the Religious Zionism party one Knesset seat.

It’s not by chance that Religious Zionism spent hundreds of thousands of shekels on an ad campaign directed at Haredi voters. By design, the word “Zionism” does not appear in advertising geared towards the ultra-Orthodox community. The campaign features Smotrich’s picture and the Hebrew letter “Tet,” the letter on the party’s ballot slip – but without reference to the party’s name. The campaign also includes video clips showing Smotrich fighting for funding for yeshivas and older yeshiva students and opposing public transportation on Shabbat and Reform conversions. The settlement enterprise and Israeli annexation of West Bank territory are not mentioned.

In recent weeks, the Religious Zionism party leader has also held a series of meetings with Haredi rabbis – those who have agreed to meet with him. Officials in Religious Zionism forecast that Haredi voters will provide the party with its fifth Knesset seat – and maybe even a sixth. Sources with United Torah Judaism admit that it’s a problem, but at this point, they aren’t showing concern regarding a possible total collapse. The numbers defecting to Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party aren’t large, said one source, “but it’s clear he’s getting thousands of our votes.”

Internal polling data shows that Smotrich’s party would attract the necessary 3.25 percent of the vote to qualify for Knesset representation in any event, the source added, and is seeking to attract votes worth half a Knesset seat from among United Torah Judaism voters. “[We] want him to leave us alone and take votes from Bennett,” the source said, referring to Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett.

Avraham Leib Burstein, 50, is a well-known Haredi klezmer musician in Jerusalem. After voting for United Torah Judaism his entire life, Burstein decided to vote Religious Zionism this time around, mainly, he said, because he is sick and tired of politicians. United Torah Judaism, he claimed, has been taken over by a handful of people.

Burstein was at pains to say that he is not a Zionist. Zionism is anathema in portions of the Haredi community, where the movement is seen as rushing the work of the Messiah. “But Smotrich is the closest thing to the Haredi parties, and he’s also a mensch. He’s the closest to the Haredi ideal,” Burstein said, and will look after the things most important to his community.

A Religious Zionism election poster featuring Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir.Credit: Emil Salman

That includes draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men and for “looking after the Torah world,” he noted. “My hand will tremble but I will vote for him,” Burstein acknowledged. “The only thing I’m afraid of is the bad luck that Ben-Gvir will bring, because he has never been elected.”

Itamar Ben-Gvir, a former follower of the late racist Rabbi Meir Kahane, is the head of Otzma Yehudit party, which is running on a joint slate with Smotrich’s party. Ben-Gvir features prominently in Religious Zionism’s ad campaign directed at the Haredi community. Many on the margins of Haredi society view him as a legitimate candidate and sees his linkup with Smotrich as giving him a stamp of approval.

Meir, the Jerusalem resident, blamed United Torah Judaism’s Knesset members for own defection to Religious Zionism. “Their party did not take care of us, and when Lieberman and the media have bashed us, they’ve barely responded,” he said, referring to the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu. “The only ones to come out against the attacks on the Haredim during the coronavirus crisis have been Smotrich and people from Likud, such as [Public Security Minister Amir] Ohana. Lieberman never stopped attacking us.”

Avraham Leib BursteinCredit: Emil Salman

The shift is also clearly apparent among residents of ultra-Orthodox West Bank settlements – particularly in the two large settlements of Modi’in Ilit and Betar Ilit. The residents in these communities have “unique needs” that don’t exist in Bnei Brak and Elad, said Y., referring to two ultra-Orthodox cities in Israel proper.

“When you contact a Haredi representative in the Knesset to take care of a building permit or just about ongoing matters, they tell you that ‘the religious [Zionists] will take of the settlers.’ So why shouldn’t I vote for the religious [Zionists] directly?” he asked. Beyond that, the ultra-Orthodox leadership has taken the man in the street for granted, Y. claimed.

“Ultimately one Smotrich is better for me than four ultra-Orthodox Knesset members,” he quipped. “He’s more attentive to the people more than all of the Haredi representatives put together.”

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