Israeli ultra-Orthodox Party Runs Powerful Voter-turnout Machine on Election Day

'With us, most voters are solid. We don’t really need to persuade floating voters, only to ensure that they go and vote,' says United Torah Judaism HQ chief

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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A campaign rally of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, Tel Aviv, September 15, 2019.
A campaign rally of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, Tel Aviv, September 15, 2019. Credit: Shuki lerer
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

“Does anyone here speak English?” yells one of the telephone operators, a teenage yeshiva student. Staff members summon an English speaker from an adjacent room, who ascertains with the woman on the line that she will in fact go and vote. He relaxes only after getting this assurance.

The United Torah Judaism headquarters in Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul neighborhood is humming with action, with dozens of activists on phones. “With us, most voters are solid. We don’t really need to persuade floating voters, only to ensure that they go and vote,” says the headquarters’ chief of staff, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Eliezer Rauchberger.

A minute later, someone runs up to Rauchberger. He is the person responsible for the votes of foreign residents who are eligible voters. “I have a woman here whose father died in the United States. She’s asking if she can go and vote before she flies there.” According to Jewish law, a person who has to bury a family member is exempt from fulfilling some commandments.

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“Call Rabbi Kanievsky immediately,” says Rauchberger. An activist texts the rabbi’s grandson, who, after several minutes, replies: “One is permitted to and should vote.”

In the section devoted to special sectors, such as the elderly or the sick, 20 young women are operating the phones. “If we don’t organize transportation right now, we lose all those votes,” the person responsible tells one of the activists. “Get me a vehicle right away so that I can take them.”

“Other parties will never attain our degree of accuracy in compiling voter lists,” says Rauchberger. “These are large and dispersed, but with us it’s a matter of community. We went from door to door and we know exactly who identifies with our party, who is with Agudath Yisrael and who is with Shas. People know who everyone identifies with according to the schools their children are in, to where they pray and other details.”

The party has established a system in which its observers at polling stations report back using their tablets. Any observer who has not sent a report for more than 15 minutes receives a phone call from headquarters, asking about the delay. Activists get typed pages every two hours, updated as to who has not voted yet. Next to every name there is a note of whether that person voted in the last election, as well as other remarks.

At the headquarters of Agudath Yisrael – one of two parties that make up United Torah Judaism, the other being Degel Hatorah – activity is also in high gear. Activists are divided according to Hasidic sects, with a big screen showing voter turnout in each one, which drives competition between them. Here too, reports on who has shown up to vote are transmitted online to headquarters, with anyone who has not yet voted receiving a call urging him to vote. The phone numbers are listed in a “list of the faithful in the Holy Land.”

One activist calls a potential voter, who explains that he needs transportation. His name and details are immediately entered on a special form, which goes to vehicle headquarters. “This headquarters is divided according to neighborhoods, with several vehicles in each one. They go around all day, helping people reach the polling stations,” explains this division’s manager, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Yossi Deutsch.

“Nearly everyone here is a volunteer,” he says. Dozens of young men gather around the headquarters, asking to volunteer. “If we wanted to, we could have hundreds of volunteers here in a minute,” adds another manager. Throughout the day, cars roam the neighborhoods, with loudspeakers reminding residents that this election will determine the religious nature of this country. The admor (spiritual leader) of the Belz sect has voted for the first time in his life, and the party has published a photo of him casting a vote, in view of “the gravity of the moment.”

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