The Power of Religion in Israeli Politics

Sunday, February 10, 2019 |  David Lazarus

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews will once again be the tipping point in Israel’s upcoming election. As Left and Right juggle their options to convince a deeply-skeptical public to follow their lead, the Orthodox will inevitably hold the keys to determining Israel’s next prime minister and the party that will lead the country into our unforeseen future.

And here’s why. The ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim (Hebrew for “those who tremble at His word”), make up about 9% of Israel’s population, but their political power reaches far beyond their numbers. Traditionally, Haredim will vote as a bloc according to directives of their chief rabbis. Voting in alliance has consistently given the Haredim far more influence in determining who will form Israel’s collation governments than the ever-growing lists of non-religious factions. Haredim also come out to vote in far greater numbers than their secular counterparts. 

But don’t let the fact that Haredim comply with their rabbis fool you. This does not mean that they are not able to express their personal opinions on politics or candidates. Indeed, politics is considered the national pastime of the ultra-Orthodox! Hesitant to participate in other recreations like sports, movies or spending their leisure time like the secular population, the Haredim love to discuss politics. To have influence over Israel society, it’s security, culture and future, is a source of great pride in Haredi communities. They are very proud of this influence and see it as part of their destiny to Am Yisroel, the People of Israel.

For Haredim, personal opinion on politics or candidates is not as important as concern for the community. Just because they may not agree with their rabbi, it doesn’t mean that they are not voting their own conscience. It is their very awareness of the importance of their community that convinces the ultra-Orthodox to compromise their personal preferences and vote, as recommended by their rabbi, with the whole. For Haredim, their identify is not only as individuals, but as being part of their wider community. The group is more important that one’s personal choice. This is in stark contrast to secular voters, whose personal choices and freedoms are tantamount. 

There are two main Haredi voting blocs, Ashkenazi and Sephardic. Since the 1980s, theAshkenazi has become a predominately Hasidic bloc (a spiritual revival movement that began in Eastern Europe). They often join with Degel HaTorah, a non-HasidicHaredi party for elections and coalition-forming. When so combined, they are known as United Torah Judaism. Sephardic Jews are primarily represented by Shas, the Haredi party that was founded and led by Ovadia Yosef, an Iraqi-born Talmudic scholar. 

The large majority of all Haredi voters define themselves as conservative right-wingers. However, Haredi parties will often be willing to go along with a peace process, even though most of the people in their constituency may not agree. This is because the issues that truly concern Haredim are more about stipends for yeshiva students, exempting their own from military service, kosher rules or Sabbath observance. Haredi politicians will make deals with secular parties in order to protect the interests of their constituency. Unity with flexibility has given the Haredim huge advantage over other political parties.

Netanyahu continues to be well-liked by the Haredim. He is conservative, has had success in pressing Israel’s case in the international community, and for the most part has managed to protect Haredi interests. For the past 10 years, Netanyahu has been able to offer ultra-Orthodox communities billions of shekels for their institutions in exchange for their remaining a “safe” coalition partner keeping his government intact. 

Through more access to Internet news, young Haredi voters are increasingly aware of their civic responsibility and many cast their ballots for Netanyahu’s Likud party in the last election, rather than vote for one of their own Haredi factions. Young ultra-Orthodox Jews are more willing to vote independently of their rabbi’s mandate, and in the last election, according to estimates, a full 30 percent of young voters did not follow their rabbi’s request to vote for a Haredi party. A trend, that if it continues, will likely begin to weaken the power of religion on Israeli politics. 

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