On Election Day, Ramat Bet Shemesh is usually covered in a riotous profusion of campaign signs, banners and posters, its sidewalks littered with pamphlets extolling the virtues of one party or another. However, as Israelis went to the polls for the fourth time in two years, this predominantly ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem suburb was uncharacteristically subdued, with little of its usual election-related fanfare.
But while there were few, if any, political activists stationed outside of most local polling places, the neighborhood’s supermarkets and stores were much more active, packed with people engaging in last-minute shopping prior to the beginning of Passover this weekend.
What Israel's last-minute polls say, and can we trust them? LISTEN to Election Overdose podcast
Residents who spoke with Haaretz pointed to both voter fatigue and holiday preparation as factors in the relative lack of activity.
“I noticed this not just now but for the past few weeks,” said David Ruschinek, an Australian member of the Chabad Hasidic community. “Usually two weeks before [the election], [United Torah Judaism] and Shas start mobbing the Haredi neighborhoods. This time there were almost none.”
“I do think people are somewhat tired and fed up,” mused one ultra-Orthodox Likud activist standing outside of the local community center, one of the only locations in the neighborhood at which there was any organized political activity, with a mix of religious Zionism and ultra-Orthodox teenagers manning booths promoting various religious and conservative parties.
“Election Day used to be the ‘festival of democracy’ but after four times in two years it’s lost its luster.”
While get-out-the-vote efforts were relatively low key, the messages being promoted by the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties were anything but. Both appeared to claim a divine mandate, appealing to rabbinic authority and fear of aggressive secularism to drive voters to the polls.
- Israel election: Netanyahu or not, the next Knesset will be overwhelmingly right-wing
- Four possible outcomes for Israel’s unprecedented fourth election in two years
- Israel election: These right-wing immigrants aren’t sure Bibi deserves their vote
Shas posters featuring the face of the late Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef claimed that “Israel chooses God,” while UTJ posters featured excerpts from a letter by prominent Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, religious leader of the the moderate Lithuanian – non-Hasidic – part of the ultra-Orthodox community, claiming that the party’s supporters would merit entering paradise.
Both appeals were based on a concept known as Daas Torah, an ultra-Orthodox equivalent of the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility, first promulgated by rabbis and activists affiliated with the Agudath Israel party in interwar Poland.
However, UTJ and Shas were not the only ones to present their political views as religiously binding. In the nearby Hasidic enclave of Ramat Bet Shemesh Bet, posters described voting as a violation of Jewish law, declaring that it was “forbidden to take part in elections” and claiming that anybody doing so was thereby complicit in “polytheism, sexual perversion and the shedding of blood.”
Nevertheless, just as the upcoming holiday and election fatigue appear to have put a damper on electioneering among more mainstream Haredim, those opposed to taking part in politics were likewise much less active than usual.
The neighborhood’s extremists, whose regular demonstrations and clashes with police have made the national and even international news on many occasions, were unusually silent.
The only sound of protest were several children repeatedly screaming “Nazi” at voters from their balcony, but their shouts were largely drowned out by the sounds of traffic.