Praying for a Rainy Election Day

Though it's hard to begin a discussion about voting trends among the United Torah Judaism party without bringing up the issue of bogus votes, it can be assumed that with public awareness about polling fraud at a relatively high level, fake votes will be a marginal factor.

There's a tale about an ultra-Orthodox Jew on an election day, who was observing the shiva mourning period for his deceased father when his rabbi came to visit. "Rabbi," asked the bereaved son, "how can I go vote in the middle of the shiva period? The rabbi replied: "Your father will go vote, so surely you, too, will cast your ballot." This anecdote joins another, somewhat well-worn joke about voting fraud, which relates that the pious Haredim of Bnei Brak are not allowed to vote between 3 and 4 P.M., because that's the hour when the dead cast their ballots.

Though it's hard to begin a discussion about voting trends among the United Torah Judaism party without bringing up the issue of bogus votes, it can be assumed that with public awareness about polling fraud at a relatively high level, fake votes will be a marginal factor.

The UTJ rank and file are frustrated. The party's natural constituency is growing steadily, and yet UTJ has not been able to reap electoral dividends from this expansion; for years, the party has had just four or five Knesset members. They watched with stunned envy during the last Knesset elections in 1999, as Shas, a kind of stepsister party for Sephardi Jews that made its debut in 1984, captured 17 Knesset seats. And they peruse current polls in a similar state of resentment, since the forecasts project 15 Knesset seats for the Shinui party, thanks largely to UTJ's activity.

The Haredi population doubles every 16 years, according to research studies by Prof. Eli Berman. Agudath Yisrael, UTJ's forerunner, won 3.3 percent of the votes in the 1965 Knesset elections, which gave the party four Knesset seats. By 1999, the Haredi population was four times larger, owing to natural growth (and excluding formerly secular Jews who joined the ultra-Orthodox population by choice). Despite such significant population growth, UTJ won just 3.7 percent of the vote (126,000 total votes) in the 1999 elections, meaning that it received just five Knesset seats.

One of the reasons why Israel's ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi party, in its various versions, has not increased its Knesset representation involves Shas' departure from the fold. Experts believe that three to four of Shas' 17 Knesset seats were won thanks to Haredi voters. In this respect, UTJ functionaries have only themselves to blame: discriminatory, apartheid-like policies enacted by Ashkenazi Haredim toward Sephardim brought about this loss of voters.

The other reason, of course, involves the Russian immigration. Before the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union, a party needed 18,500 votes to win a Knesset seat, whereas about a decade later in 1999 this figure rose to 26,000. This translates to an increase of 40 percent in the total needed to snare a Knesset seat, and this rise offset the Haredi population's natural growth during the decade.

UTJ managed, at last, to win five Knesset seats during the last elections, but this increase came from two new categories of one-time-only voters: those who voted at the behest of pro-UTJ charm cards distributed by the Shuvu Banim Yeshiva, and settlers, moshav residents and Arabs who rely on the patronage of the housing and construction minister, and voted due to support they received during the period when Meir Porush served as deputy housing minister.

These two categories of voters will apparently drift toward other parties. Yet the slackened pace of immigration gives UTJ hope that it will secure a fifth Knesset seat this time around thanks to the Haredi sector's natural growth. Some 4,000 Haredi couples marry every year. Some 4,000 Haredi males dodge army service each year. These figures support a widely-held belief that 8,000 Haredim, male and female, join the voting pool each year. That means 24,000 Haredim have joined the pool during the past three years. Also, many Haredim, Sephardi and Askhenazi, cast ballots in 1999 for Shas to protest against Shas leader Aryeh Deri's conviction; these voters can be expected to return to the UTJ fold in the upcoming elections. These developments are likely to produce a fifth Knesset seat for the UTJ, meaning that Yosef Lapid's partner from the Popolitika current affairs television program, Rabbi Yisrael Eichler, will join the Knesset.

UTJ faces daunting challenges. Despite the slowdown in immigration, an annual average of 50,000 newcomers have arrived in Israel during the past three years. UTJ will need to snatch many votes from Shas, if it is to receive a sixth Knesset seat, nor will it be able to rely on charm cards, or an explicit campaign based on the slogan "disappointed Shas voters, come back to us." UTJ's big advantage is also a distinct disadvantage. It has a hard core of voters who never punish the party by casting ballots elsewhere; on the other hand, the party has not found it easy to break beyond this constituency's ghetto walls.

More than anything else, UTJ is hoping for rain on election day, or, God willing, a major storm. Voter turnout in the Haredi sector is 90 percent; in fact, once the infirm and those who live abroad are subtracted, it is 100 percent. The turnout rate in the general population is about 80 percent, which is very high compared to other countries. Haredi voters will go to voting booths in compliance with the rabbis' orders, no matter what the weather. UTJ operatives hope that voters from other parties will decide to stay warm and dry in the event of showers, thus allowing UTJ to scale to the unprecedented peak of seven or eight Knesset seats.

Thus many rainy day prayers will be recited in UTJ circles in weeks ahead - for political reasons, and not out of concern for the water level in Lake Kinneret.