Argument

The Ultra-Orthodox Will Determine Israel’s Political Future

Netanyahu’s embrace and the left’s hostility have made the fast-growing Haredi Jewish population the right’s most reliable constituency.

An Ultra-Orthodox Israeli man, accompanied by his children, prepares to cast his ballot at a polling station in Bnei Brak, near the city of Tel Aviv, on March 17, 2015.
An Ultra-Orthodox Israeli man, accompanied by his children, prepares to cast his ballot at a polling station in Bnei Brak, near the city of Tel Aviv, on March 17, 2015. (GIL COHEN MAGEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, or Haredis, are Israel’s fastest-growing group, but they are also the country’s poorest population, with 45 percent living below the poverty line in insular communities. Yet, unlike in other countries, where the poor tend to vote for left-wing parties that promote social welfare agendas, Israeli Haredis are overwhelmingly right-wing, and the Haredi parties that they elect consistently lend their support to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud party.

This was not always the case. During Israel’s first 30 years when the left was in power, Haredis were part of left-led coalitions. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, pledged to keep the status quo when it came to the nascent state’s religious-secular relations, as well as to exempt Haredis from military service in order to allow them to study the Torah full time.

At the time, there was no alternative. The left decisively won elections in Israel’s early days, and hence the choice the Haredi parties faced was merely to join the coalition or stay out. Things changed in 1977, when the right-wing Likud party won. Its leader, Menachem Begin, expanded Ben-Gurion’s pledges, and since then Haredis have been loyal allies of Likud, choosing to tip the scale to the right when they are the swing votes in parliament.

One of the drivers for the Haredi alliance with the right is the perception that the left wants to secularize them and instill progressive universal values. To them, this is akin to Europe’s attempt to Europeanize its Muslims. It is clearest in the left’s harsh criticism of the Haredi community’s treatment of women, its views on homosexuality, and the number of children they have.

This is in addition to criticizing Haredis as free riders who are disproportionate recipients of welfare and taxpayer funding for their institutions but who don’t contribute through the workforce or serve in the military. While such criticism exists on the right, it is mostly associated with centrist leaders such as Yair Lapid.

At the same time, impoverished Haredis do not have the characteristics of other countries’ poor, such as higher crime rates, proliferation of gangs, and inadequate access to health care. The Haredi poor are highly educated, with full access to health care and a strong sense of community support, which, for Haredis, is associated with the traditional values of the right.

Moreover, over the last decades, Haredis came full circle from rejecting Zionist ideology—believing instead that the Jewish state can be established only through Messianic redemption—to becoming one of the de facto flag carriers of Zionism and Jewish nationalism. This is demonstrated through Haredi contributions to Israeli society and the strong sense of mutual responsibility. For example, Haredi medics save thousands of Israeli lives every year through United Hatzalah, a Haredi-run, motorcycle-based volunteer organization that gets to the scenes of accidents and other emergencies long before the ambulances.

This month, Nefesh B’Nefesh, which is affiliated with the Jewish Agency for Israel and the World Zionist Organization, gave its Builders of Zion Prize to Miriam Ballin, the founder of United Hatzalah’s Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit. Similarly, Yad Sarah, a Haredi charity organization, provides wheelchairs and other medical devices to all Israelis. It won the prestigious Israel Prize, awarded by the Israeli government. Uri Lupolianski, the mayor of Jerusalem from 2003 to 2008, was Haredi, and Israel’s Health Ministry has long been headed by a Haredi, Yaakov Litzman, who is highly respected by secular and religious Israelis alike.

Like religious Christians and other religious-minded Israeli Jews, Haredis point to the Bible to affirm the sanctity of the Land of Israel. Indeed, Haredis are now strongly associated with settlement expansion. The two largest Israeli settlements are Haredi: Modiin Ilit, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and Beitar Ilit, just south of Jerusalem. Haredis comprise 30 percent of all West Bank settlers, and while their choice of residence is not necessarily driven by ideology, there is a natural alignment of interests with the pro-settlement right. In addition, there is some blurring of the lines between Haredi and the national-religious—observant Orthodox Jews who are integrated into Israeli society. Over the last two decades, a significant portion of the national-religious community took on stricter religious habits and began describing themselves as Haredi national-religious. This population represents the most right-wing element of Israeli politics, and hence, as they increasingly interact with Haredis, they are likely to influence Haredi views toward the right.

Another contributor to the shift of Haredis to the right is the changing composition of the Haredi population itself. Since the 1980s, there has been a sharp rise in the percentage of Haredis who are Sephardic Jews of Middle Eastern background, who tend to support the right.This is reflected in the rise of Shas, the Sephardic Haredi party that was founded in 1984 by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and in each election since has been winning more votes than the Ashkenazi Haredi party, United Torah Judaism. Shas’s 2019 election campaign was launched with posters showing its leader, Aryeh Deri, alongside Netanyahu and arguing that a vote for Shas would strengthen the prime minister.

Haredis increasingly interact with other Israelis. Haredi women, who are the primary breadwinners of the Haredi family because the men are studying, increasingly work outside the community, and while still in very early stages, more and more Haredis are going to university, joining the workforce as opposed to studying the Torah full time, and even enlisting in the military. This is enabled through new special Haredi-friendly programs that include gender segregation. Moreover, there are now Haredi high-tech entrepreneurs and innovators. Such developments could turn Haredis into Israel’s next engine of economic growth. As Haredis mingle with Israelis outside their closed communities, they tend to gravitate toward interactions with those who are religious (for example during prayer services and kosher dining). In doing so, they are likely influenced by the steadfast right-wing affiliation of Israel’s national-religious population.

This broadening of horizons represents the great hope of the left. The thinking was that as Haredis were exposed to the outside world, they would naturally abandon their Haredi life and right-wing politics along with it. But so far, this process is yielding the exact opposite result. Haredis are indeed becoming more Israeli—for example, there is less Yiddish and more Hebrew heard in Haredi neighborhoods. But unlike some Muslims in Europe, Haredis become more Israeli while staying fully religious.

This is a byproduct of the Israeli pluralism model and its authentic “be who you are” mantra, which replaced the homogenous melting-pot ethos of Israel’s early years, when Israeli identity was being formed. It is seen in other segments of Israeli society as well. For example, the Druze are among Israel’s top-ranking military and police officers and without a doubt strong Israeli patriots. Yet they choose to self-segregate in Druze villages. One can see analogous trends with young Israeli Arabs. In the cafes of Haifa—Israel’s third-largest city with a mixed Jewish and Arab population—one cannot tell who around a given table of friends is Jewish or Arab. Yet the two groups tend to live in their own separate communities due to widespread residential segregation. Such realities are part of the reason that some Europeans now view Israel as inspiration for Europe. Just as Haredi, Druze, and Arab Israelis can be Israeli while maintaining their particularity, so could a German stay German while still being a proud European.

Haredis are less likely to change their political views as they venture out of their communities and are instead more likely to double-down on their core beliefs. Therefore, Haredis of European heritage (Ashkenazi) continue to overwhelmingly vote for United Torah Judaism and Sephardic Haredis for Shas, both of which won eight seats in last week’s election.

If Netanyahu’s opponent, Benny Gantz, had a fantasy that his Blue and White party could entice Haredi parties through promises of funding and dialogue, this was shattered shortly after the polls closed, when Haredi party leaders reiterated unequivocally that their support would be going to Netanyahu. Shas leader Deri reportedly even refused to take Gantz’s call.

When Haredis are in a position of being the swing vote, as was the case in this election, they always give their support to the right-wing Likud—never to the center-left. The only way for the center-left to win Haredi support is if it wins the election outright, as it did in 1992, and hence force the Haredi parties to choose: be welcomed warmly into our government or stay outside in the cold.

Gantz’s Blue and White, now the primary opposition party to Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition, is fairly right-wing itself and agrees with the prime minister on many policies. (Its key campaign message was to replace Bibi, not his policies.) Some Blue and White members describe themselves as right-wing, while others say they are neither right nor left. The close ideological fit between the opposition and Netanyahu gives rise to the possibility of a national unity government if the prime minister runs into trouble. Such a government could exclude Haredis, cut subsidies to their institutions, or even make uncomfortable decisions about Haredi military conscription.

While Netanyahu is now in the process of forming a right-wing government, this does not exclude the possibility that later in his term he might opt to switch it to a centrist one if some of his partners abandon him or if the introduction of U.S. President Donald Trump’s long-anticipated Israel-Palestinian peace plan creates discord.

There is always a risk that Haredis could become less crucial for the right in forming coalitions in future elections, and thus their power might diminish. Yet, with a birth rate of 6.9 children per Haredi woman, they are likely to play an increasingly central role in Israeli politics in years to come. Indeed, their share of the population is projected to rise from 11 percent in 2015 to 27 percent in 2059. They also vote in larger numbers than the overall Israeli public. The Israeli left does have an opportunity to reinvent itself by finally internalizing changing Israeli demographics and political realities. In doing so, it must accept Haredis on a “be who you are” basis and put forward a vision for Israel that would make Haredis central to it.

Gol Kalev writes about Zionism, Europe, and global affairs. He is a board member of the America-Israel Friendship League and chairman of the AIFL Think Tank.

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