Ultra-Orthodox Voters Split Between Following Their Rabbi and Their Gut

Bnei Brak has one of the largest Haredi populations in Israel, with an increasing number of them voting for nonreligious parties. They may disagree on who they’ll be backing on April 9, but one thing unites them — boycotting Yair Lapid

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks with a boy near a poster promoting Shas ahead of the upcoming Knesset election, Bnei Brak, Israel, March 28, 2019.
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks with a boy near a poster promoting Shas ahead of the upcoming Knesset election, Bnei Brak, Israel, March 28, 2019.Credit: Meged Gozani
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

The big hole in the door and shards of glass at the entrance are evidence of the latest act of vandalism at Likud’s Bnei Brak headquarters the previous evening.

Yaakov Vider, chairman of the local branch of Israel’s ruling party in this ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) city next to Tel Aviv, apologizes for the mess as he escorts a visitor inside and explains that such incidents have become fairly common.

Haaretz Weekly Episode 20Credit: Haaretz

“Sometimes they spray graffiti, sometimes they throw eggs,” he says. “This is definitely not the first time they’ve used rocks. It seems to drive some people crazy here that there are Haredi Jews who don’t vote for Haredi parties.”

Elsewhere in the country Likud is considered a hard-line party, but not in Bnei Brak. “Here,” says Vider, “we are the moderates.”

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Vider, 34, made history a few months ago when he became the first representative of a non-Haredi party to win a seat on the city council in more than three decades. The last time this happened, he points out, Bnei Brak was a more diverse city, with a significant population of secular Jews. Today, by contrast, Israel’s 11th largest city — with a population of more than 200,000 — is almost entirely ultra-Orthodox.

This baby-faced politician is a prominent example of a small but growing trend within ultra-Orthodox society in Israel: Voters who refuse to take their marching orders from the rabbinical authorities. They are not only voting for non-Haredi parties but also becoming active in them.

In the last election, nearly 60 percent of the vote here went to United Torah Judaism — the Ashkenazi-affiliated ultra-Orthodox party — and 24 percent to its Mizrahi equivalent, Shas. (UTJ had six seats in the outgoing Knesset and Shas seven.) Yachad, a party that split off from Shas but didn’t win enough votes to get into the 2015 Knesset, won another 5.5 percent of the vote here. Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, by contrast, barely captured 5 percent.

Likud is the only non-Haredi party with an office in Bnei Brak. Vider, who heads it, ran Likud’s campaign in the ultra-Orthodox community nationwide in the last election. Based on his calculations, 25,000 Haredi voters cast their ballot for Likud back then. “That is the equivalent of one entire seat for Likud,” he says. “If you think about it, it’s quite a revolution.”

Out of touch leadership

Dr. Gilad Malach, an expert on ultra-Orthodox society, tends to take a more sober view of developments. “I wouldn’t describe what’s happening as a revolution,” the Israel Democracy Institute researcher says, “because it’s a very slow process. It is clear, though, that growing numbers of ultra-Orthodox Israelis are not automatically voting for ultra-Orthodox parties like they used to.”

According to a study he conducted in 2006, just 10 percent of ultra-Orthodox voters at the time cast their ballots for non-Haredi parties. By 2015, that number had grown to 17 percent. Malach believes that in the upcoming April 9 election, it could reach more than 20 percent. (Some 6 to 7 percent of the Haredi voting-age population typically sits out elections, he says. These nonvoters belong to extremist sects that do not recognize any form of Jewish sovereignty before the coming of the messiah.)

“There are lots of factors that can explain this trend,” says Malach. “It’s connected to the fact that more ultra-Orthodox voters are joining the workforce, that more are pursuing higher education, that they’re exposed to the internet and have more sources of information now. The result is that they don’t automatically obey the demands of their rabbis."

Yaakov Vider at the Bnei Brak Likud branch, March 25, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“But the main factor,” he says, “is that many Haredi voters no longer feel that their political leadership represents them. There are other issues, such as security and economics, that interest them more than obtaining funding for their particular community.”

Among those voting for non-Haredi parties, Malach says about half vote for Likud. The rest tend to support those parties further to the right, with only a very small number voting for left-wing parties.

“One of the interesting trends we’re seeing now is growing support among Haredi voters for Zehut,” says Malach, referring to Moshe Feiglin’s far-right party that supports both marijuana legalization and the annexation of the entire West Bank.

Ultra-Orthodox voters are defying convention and voting as they please not only in national elections but also municipal elections, notes Malach. The election of Likudnik Councilman Vider in Bnei Brak is proof of that. So was the ousting of the long-serving Haredi mayor of Beit Shemesh by a Modern Orthodox woman last October.

Malach says the big parties are taking note of this phenomenon and, for the first time ever, welcoming Haredim into their ranks.

Michal Zernowitski, for example, is a social activist from the ultra-Orthodox town of Elad who ran in the recent Labor Party primary. Had the party not lost so much support in recent years, she might have had a decent shot at getting into the next Knesset. And Likud, Malach notes, reserved a spot — albeit not a realistic one — for a Haredi candidate on its 2019 slate.

The main rival to Netanyahu’s Likud in this election, Kahol Lavan, actually has a Haredi woman in a realistic spot on its slate. However, the presence of Omer Yankelevich, an ultra-Orthodox social activist from Beit Shemesh, is not expected to draw many Haredi voters to the party. It is widely believed that whatever help she could provide is more than offset by the presence of Yair Lapid atop the ticket. Lapid, who is number two to Benny Gantz, is widely disliked in the ultra-Orthodox community because of his campaign to force yeshiva boys to enlist in the army when he served in the government between 2013-2015.

Anti-everything parties

Although he wears a large black yarmulke, Vider does not have the standard sidelocks and beard sported by most men in Bnei Brak. And although he attended several prominent Haredi yeshivas, he also did something many in his world consider unthinkable: He spent a few years in the Israel Defense Forces.

Vider insists that it wasn’t him but Haredi society that became radicalized. “There was a time many years ago when most ultra-Orthodox Jews worked for a living and were integrated into society,” he explains. “They had a party that represented them then that no longer exists, and it was called Poalei Agudat Yisrael. These people still account for a large share of Haredi society, but for a long time they had no party that represented them. The Haredi parties that exist today are against everything. They’re against going out to work. They’re against higher education. They’re against serving in the army. So, naturally, people like me wouldn’t vote for them.”

After closing the office for the day, Vider strolls through the main commercial district in Bnei Brak. This is a rare example of an Israeli city without any malls, so the sidewalks are overflowing with shoppers. “Just wait another few weeks, as Passover approaches, and it will be so crowded that you won’t even be able to move,” he warns.

He stops to chat with two young men dressed in typical Haredi garb. One says he has no intention of voting at all: “What good will it do if I vote?” he asks. The other says he will vote for whichever party he is instructed to by the gedolim (a term used to describe the community’s rabbinical leaders). “What I think is not relevant,” he says.

Vider tries to get them to rethink their positions. “What do you think happens in other countries where Haredim live?” he asks them. “You think they don’t vote if they don’t have their own parties? You think they don’t vote in America? Of course they vote — and there’s no reason you can’t vote here for non-Haredi parties.”

The two men do him the courtesy of listening, though it’s not clear whether he has gotten through to them.

Anyone but Lapid

After a long day at the office, Zohara Vardi calls into one of the numerous sheitel shops on the city’s main drag, Rabbi Akiva Street. “I need to get my wigs done before Passover,” she explains.

Michal Vega-Levental, March 2019.Credit: Judy Maltz

Vardi, the only woman here who agrees to be quoted by her full name, says she is still a wavering voter, but is leaning in a definite direction. “I won’t be voting for Lapid, but maybe Netanyahu,” she says. “After all, things are good in the country so why do we need a new leader? He’s nice, he’s charismatic — and so what if he lies? World leaders also have to know how to lie.”

When it comes to voting, Vardi declares, “I’m not in anyone’s pocket.” Although she has lived her entire life in Bnei Brak, this 59-year-old grandmother has spent many years working in logistics at Israel Aerospace Industries, where she mixes with Israelis from other walks of life on a daily basis. That might explain her unusually defiant attitude.

For Ahuva, a woman who asks to join the conversation, Likud is apparently too moderate. “I’m with Bezalel Smotrich,” she says, referring to the extremist leader of National Union (which is part of the newly formed Union of Right-Wing Parties alliance). “We should not give up one inch of the Land of Israel,” she says, shaking her finger in the air.

By contrast, Rachel, who has worked in this wig shop for 36 years, says she is happy to let others decide for her. “I vote for whomever the rabbi says,” she says. “For me, it doesn’t make a different whether it’s Shas or UTJ. What’s important is that it’s a party that promotes Torah learning and fear of God.”

In a room hidden away in the back of the shop, about half a dozen women — all married, some as young as their late teens — sit in a circle. Equipped with blow-dryers, curling irons and hair spray, they are busy styling wigs.

The upcoming election doesn’t seem to concern them much, and most say they will wait for rabbinical instructions on if and how to vote. A woman who asks to be identified as Adina says she had originally planned not to vote at all. “But it’s really important for me that Lapid doesn’t get in, so in the end I will,” she adds. For which party? “Whatever the rabbi says, obviously,” she responds.

Fifth column

Taking its cue from Likud, about two years ago, Labor launched a major outreach campaign to Haredi voters. One of the hundreds of ultra-Orthodox voters who subsequently registered with the party was Michal Vega-Levental, a Bnei Brak-based real estate lawyer. Taking a break from work one afternoon this week, she sums up the unique challenges facing someone who looks and dresses like her but votes for the left.

File photo: Ultra-Orthodox men walk past a campaign poster calling for center-left leaders to unite ahead of election, January 23, 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod

“In the Labor Party, because I’m Haredi they think I must be part of a fifth column. And here in Bnei Brak, because I’m a member of Labor, they think I must be part of a fifth column,” she sighs.

Vega-Levental, who is divorced with three children, belonged to Likud for quite a few years, but explains that this was just a tactical move. “At the time, there were many people on the far right joining the party so they could vote in the primaries and influence the slate. The reason I joined was to counteract that effect,” she says.

Even Labor, she notes, doesn’t truly reflect her values. “I’m much more to the left than Labor,” she says, “but in my opinion they have the best slate of candidates of any party today.”

If growing numbers of ultra-Orthodox Israelis are voting for non-Haredi parties, she doesn’t attribute it to any major shift in thinking or ideology.

“What’s happening is that the Haredi population in Israel is getting much larger, and as a result so is the number of people on the fringes,” she says. “This really isn’t more than a fringe phenomenon, because the vast majority of people in this city still let their rabbis decide for them how to vote.”

Although they may be worlds apart ideologically, Vider says he considers people like Vega-Levental to be allies in a common cause.

“I’m going to tell you a secret,” he confides. “Not only do I hope that more Haredim vote for Likud in this election, I also hope more vote for Labor. What we need in this country is a two-party system — like in the United States — so I’m in favor of anything and anybody that can help this become a reality.”

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