Monday 14 October 2019

Ballot stakes high for Israel's devout voters

Ultra-Orthodox parties fear being left in wilderness if secular unity government voted in, writes Raf Sanchez in Jerusalem

Supporters of rival political parties scuffle during an election campaign in the market in Jerusalem. Photo: Ammar Awad/Reuters
Supporters of rival political parties scuffle during an election campaign in the market in Jerusalem. Photo: Ammar Awad/Reuters

Raf Sanchez

Every time Aryeh Deri spoke of the dangers ahead for Israel's most religious Jews, the sea of wide-brimmed black hats in front of him rippled with nods of agreement.

Mr Deri, the leader of Shas, one of Israel's two main ultra-Orthodox parties, had gathered his party faithful in a basketball arena for a major rally ahead of Tuesday's election.

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Thousands of men in the audience - the party's strict religious rules bar women from the crowd - listened as he warned: "The character of the state of Israel stands before a fateful decision the likes of which we have never seen in Jewish history."

For Israel's ultra-Orthodox parties, this week's vote is a referendum on the role of religion in the state.

Questions of religion and secularism have become unusually prominent after Blue and White, the main opposition party challenging Benjamin Netanyahu, announced it would form "a secular unity government" if it wins.

In practice, that would likely mean forming a coalition without the ultra-Orthodox parties. Since 2000, ultra-Orthodox parties have been part of government for all but five years and have used their cabinet positions to protect the community's privileges.

Key among those is an exemption from Israel's mandatory military service for ultra-Orthodox young men if they are in full-time religious study. These roughly 120,000 yeshiva students also receive a monthly government stipend of around 750 shekels (around €190), growing with every child they have.

Ultra-Orthodox parties have fought plans to run public transport on Shabbat, the Jewish holy day, and scuppered a compromise over the Western Wall that would make space for liberal Jews to hold mixed-gender prayer sessions. Secular parties have fuelled the resentment of many ordinary Israelis who feel the ultra-Orthodox have too much power without contributing to the country's defence or economy.

A secular nationalist party blocked Mr Netanyahu from forming a majority government after Israel's last election in April over the issue of ultra-Orthodox military service. The stand-off plunged Israel into an unprecedented second election this year. As election day nears, both Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), the other main ultra-Orthodox party, tell their voters that their very way of life is at risk. "Eaters of pork and the tramplers of Shabbat" will take over, Mr Deri said, an acidic comment about less observant Jews who do not follow a kosher diet.

In the streets of Geula, a religious neighbourhood of Jerusalem, a protester with a megaphone, denouncing the evils of the internet, cried: "It's a thousand times worse than pork."

Moshe Khomitzky, a 22-year-old yeshiva student, said he would vote for UTJ because his rabbi told him to. "Whatever he does, I will do the same," he said. Mr Khomitzky lives off his stipend and, like many ultra-Orthodox men who study Torah full-time, the money made by his wife. He worries his welfare will be cut if Blue and White come to power.

The ultra-Orthodox, also known as the Haredim, make up only 12pc of Israel's population - but that is growing fast thanks to their high birth rate. The average Haredi woman has seven children compared with the national of average of three. Rabbis tell congregations it is a religious duty to vote and that supporting Haredi politicians will help secure their place in the afterlife. As a result, Haredi voter turnout is far higher than the rest of the country.

Despite a phobia of modern technology, Shas and UTJ have developed advanced political machinery and keep detailed records of their voters. "They are very organised. They don't miss one vote," said Shmuel Papenhaim, a Haredi rabbi and former newspaper editor disillusioned with ultra-Orthodox politics. On election days, the parties send volunteers to the homes of those who haven't voted or a babysitter to look after a voter's many children while he casts his ballot.

Some of the most extreme religious factions do not vote at all because they believe earthly politics is sinful. More modern ultra-Orthodox vote for mainstream right-wing parties, like Mr Netanyahu's Likud. Among them is Eliahu Cohen (26), who said he would back Likud despite his rabbi's instructions.

Some Haredim are suspicious of the fiery rhetoric from both secular politicians and their own leaders. Betsalel Kohen, a rabbi and social entrepreneur, said: "The Book of Genesis talks about the Tower of Babel, when everybody started to speak different languages and no one understood each other. I feel sometimes like we are there again."

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