Haredi Power on the Brink

Did the Israeli Elections Signal End of Ultra-Orthodox Politics?

Won’t Go!: Haredi youth in Jerusalem protest proposals to conscript ultra-Orthodox men into the military.
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Won’t Go!: Haredi youth in Jerusalem protest proposals to conscript ultra-Orthodox men into the military.

By Moran Stern

Published February 22, 2013, issue of March 01, 2013.
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Despite the present gloom, the elections offered proof that UTJ’s natural constituency was growing quickly. For the first time, the Haredim’s staggering natural birth rate of about 5% a year was reflected in the ballots, and the party increased its number of mandates to seven. In Jerusalem, for example, UTJ was the party that won the highest number of voters.

As for Shas, the party was hopeful in the run-up to the elections. While the secular center-left parties were plagued by disagreements, Shas presented a unified front, headed by its three political stars: Eli Yishai, minister of Internal Affairs; Ariel Atias, minister of Housing, and Aryeh Deri, a veteran politician and a former minister who returned to politics after a long break and imprisonment for alleged corruption while in office. But Shas’s great hopes ended with relatively mediocre return of Knesset seats, as the party did not increase the number of its mandates, but remained with 11.

Increasing poverty rates, Yishai’s role in the mismanagement of the disastrous Mount Carmel forest fire in 2010, his deficient policies and comments in handling illegal African infiltrators to Israel, and the party’s wrong-footed and (to some) racist campaign shortly before the election have severely sabotaged Shas’s credibility and image

The position of the two Haredi parties has become precarious and — in these days of coalition talks — the parties have been making an emotional appeal not to divide the country by leaving their large constituency disenfranchised. On a more practical level, they also have been emphasizing their instrumental support for Netanyahu’s previous premierships in 1996 and 2009, as well as their potential to offset more ambitious elements like Lapid, who has openly declared his goal of becoming Israel’s next prime minister. In the next several weeks we will find out whether the Haredim’s efforts will bear fruit.

Perhaps the biggest sign of panic from Haredim regarding their political future and institutions has been their sudden wooing of their fierce ideological antagonists, the Modern Orthodox Religious Zionist party, Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home). During the election, the Shas spiritual leader, Ovadia Yosef, even called the new party a “home for gentiles.” The Haredi parties are trying now to harness influential figures and rabbis within the Religious Zionist camp and to persuade them to refrain from establishing an alliance between the party’s leader, Naftali Bennet, and Lapid.

And, in case Habayit Hayehudi joins the coalition, they hope to convince the party not to support Lapid’s plan for a comprehensive conscription of yeshiva students. If they end up in the opposition, the Haredi leaders will attempt to safeguard their yeshivas by trying to ensure that Habayit Hayehudi blocks any radical legislation on the issue of conscription.

Certainly, the Haredi world, its political parties, and the rest of Israel’s society are right to be worried. The integration of Haredim into modern society is now considered an existential matter for Israel as a whole. The participation of Haredi men in national service is only the tip of the iceberg: Within a few decades, the Haredim will surge to 25% of Israel’s total population from 10%.

In the past decade, the number of children enrolling in Haredi schools has increased by nearly 60%. Haredi schools dedicate a daily hour for the study of basic mathematics and Hebrew, with no sciences, information technology, foreign languages or geography. By the ninth grade, the only disciplines that young Haredim study are Torah and Jewish law.

Considering Israel’s domestic and regional challenges, it must sustain not only a strong military, but also an educated society. The Haredi parties will offer resistance. But if they are excluded from a new government, the wakeup call that began with the election results will be complete. Hopefully, for their own good and Israel’s future, UTJ and Shas will have the good sense to help shepherd their communities into a new, inevitable era.

Moran Stern is a lecturer at Georgetown University’s Program for Jewish Civilization in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.


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