One of the most remarkable images from the Oct. 30 municipal elections comes from Haifa. It depicts dozens of ultra-Orthodox supporters of the Degel HaTorah party dancing and singing to celebrate the election of a secular woman, Einat Kalisch-Rotem, as mayor of Israel’s third-largest city.
In the absence of ultra-Orthodox candidates for mayor of Haifa, the ultra-Orthodox had to make a choice, and decide whether to support a candidate outside their camp. But this proved to be complicated, given the split in Yahadut HaTorah (the ultra-Orthodox alliance) between the Lithuanian camp represented by Degel HaTorah and the Hasidic camp represented by Agudat Yisrael. In the end, Degel HaTorah’s electorate came out in support of Kalisch-Rotem, and actively backed her at that. This included the involvement of local rabbis and feverish activity by ultra-Orthodox volunteers in her campaign headquarters. These supporters completely ignored the fact that Kalisch-Rotem is a woman (it is well-known that women have little place in ultra-Orthodox politics). As it turns out, the ultra-Orthodox can support a secular woman for a political position as long as she advances their interests. In this particular instance, a coalition agreement was signed between Degel HaTorah and Kalisch-Rotem in which she promised to maintain the status quo on matters pertaining to the Sabbath and other religious issues.
At the headquarters of mayoral candidate Moshe Leon in Jerusalem, it seemed as if the entire ultra-Orthodox community was in his pocket after the first round of elections. In that round, Leon was supported by Shas (the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox party) and Degel HaTorah. They both backed Leon, even though the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party ran its own candidate, Yossi Deutsch, for mayor. This decision by Shas and Degel HaTorah to support a candidate who is not ultra-Orthodox rather than someone from their own sector came under sharp criticism from Agudat Yisrael. As a result, Agudat Yisrael is now in no hurry to support Leon, even though Ofer Berkovitch, the second candidate in the runoff election scheduled for Nov. 13, largely represents Jerusalem’s secular residents. Agudat Yisrael’s representatives have been introducing all sorts of difficulties in their negotiations with Leon’s staff. They have raised the bar for their demands so high that it is now doubtful that their demands will be met. Some of the Hasidic courts, including the large Slonim Hasidic group and Chabad, seem likely to recommend that their followers stay at home and not vote at all. Other groups are likely to avoid making any recommendation whatsoever, effectively giving their followers freedom to vote for their candidate of choice.
To complicate matters even more, there are divisions within the Lithuanian Degel HaTorah party. A Jerusalem branch of the Lithuanian sector is considered extremist and is opposed in principle to military conscription for anyone from its community and to any government involvement in ultra-Orthodox education. The branch announced that it would not support Leon because he has the backing of party rivals inside Degel HaTorah. This was best expressed in an editorial piece in the faction’s HaPeles newspaper. Editor Natti Grossman wrote that both Degel HaTorah and Agudat Yisrael had acted hypocritically by spreading lies and supporting a candidate (Leon) whose patron is an archenemy of the ultra-Orthodox community, secular Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.
However, the most intriguing group in Jerusalem is the ultra-Orthodox supporters of Berkovitch, who is secular. Ari Bombach, an ultra-Orthodox volunteer who was active in Berkovitch's campaign, was cited by the ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar Hashabbat as saying, “I really identify with what Berkovitch represents. I belong to the Vizhnitz Hasidic court, but any Hasidic follower should know that when he faces the City Council with all sorts of issues, he is there as a private person, and Berkovitch will provide responses to these issues when needed.” Bombach said not everyone in the Vizhnitz Hasidic court likes the fact that he supports Berkovitch, “but I tell them that as much as I respect them, I am neutral, with no obligations to anyone.”
In Jerusalem, the reasons certain sectors of the ultra-Orthodox community support a secular candidate are mainly political. In Beit Shemesh and Bnei Brak, similar trends can be attributed to greater involvement by the ultra-Orthodox community in Israeli society at large.
Unlike in Haifa, the ultra-Orthodox constitute a majority of voters in Beit Shemesh. Nevertheless, a religious but not ultra-Orthodox woman, Dr. Aliza Bloch, defeated the incumbent ultra-Orthodox mayor, Moshe Abutbul. A core group of ultra-Orthodox extremists in Beit Shemesh have given the city the image of being a bastion of religious zealotry and extremism, particularly when it comes to the separation of men and women, and the exacting demands made of women and girls to dress modestly. This is just one of the reasons why Bloch’s victory was especially surprising.
Ultra-Orthodox volunteers at her headquarters told Al-Monitor why they supported Bloch rather than Abutbul, and their reasoning would seem completely practical to anyone who is not ultra-Orthodox. One volunteer, Moshe Yakubovitch of the Lithuanian faction, said Abutbul had failed in the day-to-day management of the city. Bloch, he said, is more talented and more educated than Abutbul, and she has a far-reaching vision for Beit Shemesh. When asked why he didn’t heed the rabbis’ call to support Abutbul, Yakubovitch said, “Because this is a practical issue, important to the day-to-day life of me, my family, and the other residents of Beit Shemesh. It is not a matter of religious law. Bloch will advance the needs of the ultra-Orthodox community, too, and she will do a better job at it than Abutbul.”
Bloch’s secret was her approach to the town’s ultra-Orthodox community. She gave explicit instructions not to post her picture — a photo of a woman — in campaign posters in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, so as to respect the community’s customs. While secular Jews may have seen that as her succumbing to a policy of excluding women, she actually proved to the ultra-Orthodox that she would not force them to act against their conscience. Rather, she would involve them in all decisions about what happens in the city in general and their communities in particular.
In Bnei Brak, a majority ultra-Orthodox city, a Likud representative had not been elected to City Council in over 25 years. In this election, however, the Likud won a seat and is sending the head of its list, Yaakov Wieder, to serve on the council. He told Al-Monitor that votes for the Likud should come as no real surprise, even as the city is becoming more religious. He said the growing numbers of ultra-Orthodox who are in the workforce and who are involved in national affairs influence people to vote for parties that are not ultra-Orthodox. “It is a practical vote on civil issues,” he said. “The sectorial parties do not necessarily represent the new ultra-Orthodox. The Likud benefited from this.” Wieder also predicted than in the next Knesset election, the Likud would win two seats from the ultra-Orthodox sector.
The integration of the ultra-Orthodox into Israeli society and political rifts within ultra-Orthodox society seem to feed off each other, as Haifa, Beit Shemesh, Bnei Brak and perhaps even Jerusalem can attest. It will be interesting to see if this is also reflected in the 2019 Knesset election.
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