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Municipal elections 2018: Haredim vs. Haredim

When the Haredim break ranks locally, they change the political landscape nationally in unpredictable ways
Berkovitch Haredi HQ for the Jerusalem municipal election, 2018. (Neta Katz)
Berkovitch Haredi HQ for the Jerusalem municipal election, 2018. (Neta Katz)

The municipal elections of 2018 offered a fascinating glimpse of the changes impacting the Haredi community with its intergenerational shift of spiritual leaders, political leaders, and voters. We witnessed the dissolution of longtime political alliances replaced with new and surprising ones, the appearance of new faces on the block, the downfall of others, and the manifestation of intra-communal social-cultural changes. Many of these changes may still be at the margins and, while hard to project how this change will develop, it is hard to deny their importance.

Many municipally-based political parties are essentially local and independent of national parties. In contrast, the vast majority of Haredi municipal parties are branches of national Haredi mother-parties[1], which gives the dynamics and outcome of these elections greater relevance at a national level.

It is inaccurate to define “Haredi society” as a unitary or monolithic entity. Instead, we should look more deeply to the intra-Haredi dynamics that are reflected through, but are not restricted to the politics, as having much deeper roots and outcomes. Understanding Haredi society as not a single bloc, but multiple sub-groups, with different aims, interests and hence political behavior will allow a more nuanced understanding of how Haredi society will develop, and affect the bigger picture of Israeli society in the coming years.

Victory Night: Dr Aliza Bloch with Haredi Activists in Beit Shemesh. (Yaakov Lederman)

Voting patterns, education or vocational choices, shifting power bases, or indeed completely new ones along with other derivative changes will have dramatic social, political and economic impact on the State of Israel, and, while some might write off the ferocity of the recent elections as a political episode, we should instead be recognizing it as part a much more strategic shift in one of the most important and least understood parts of Israeli society.

Old Love vs. Old Hate

Traditionally, Haredi politics has divided into two camps — United Torah Judaism (UTJ) representing the Ashkenazic-Haredi sector; and Shas, representing the Sephardic-Haredi sector. UTJ itself is comprised of two factions: the Hasidic Agudath Israel party and the Lithuanian Degel HaTorah[2] party, with the internal composition of party members following a ratio of 60:40, in favor of Hasidic Agudath Israel.

In the recent elections, the historic pact that formed UTJ dissolved, allowing the beginnings of a new alliance between the Lithuanian and Sephardic sectors. In this new framework, Agudath Israel and Degel HaTorah ran on separate ballots on many slates, allowing Degel HaTorah and Shas to align across the country.

The breakup is new, but the story decades old. For many years, Degel HaTorah members have felt unfairly discriminated against and lacking ample representation under the political umbrella party of United Torah Judaism, due to the over-representation of Agudath Israel in the party. In the framework of the longtime agreement that lasted until the current elections, Degel HaTorah received only 40% representation in the party, despite the fact that the actual number of Lithuanian voters is larger than Agudath Israel’s, because of demographic and cultural changes.

In contrast, the background to the newly-formed alliance is relatively recent. With the passing of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, z”l, the popular face of Shas, who had attracted many traditional and even National-Religious voters, the party has steadily shaken itself free of its all-accepting, folksy dimension, remaining with its core voters: Sephardic Haredim.

Also, many Sephardic Haredim are alumni of the Lithuanian yeshivah system. This is particularly manifest in the intergenerational shift within the Shas party on the national level with the appearance of up-and-coming young Knesset members, whose Lithuanian identities are as dominant as their Sephardic ones, and whose spiritual-cultural loyalties lie with Lithuanian-Ashkenazic spiritual leaders as well as, and sometimes senior to their Sephardic contemporaries.

The above also has historical roots in the intensifying battle for hegemony within the Agudath Israel party which has long been controlled by the Hassidic faction. Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Man Shach, z”l, granted legitimacy to the withdrawal of the Sephardic community and the founding of the Shas party[3], as a preliminary political step that eventually laid the groundwork for the withdrawal and founding of the Degel HaTorah party. In light of the above, to this day, many view Rabbi Shach z”l as one of the founding fathers of the Shas movement.

Ultimately, the new political reality led to joint Shas and Degel HaTorah victories in several cities, the highest profile being the election in Jerusalem of Moshe Lion as mayor (even though he himself is part of the National Religious community). Of no less importance, the Jerusalem city council saw six council members returned for Degel HaTorah, while Agudath Israel received only half the amount, a devastating reversal of the historic status quo, causing a resulting shift in power.

The campaign (as with most political battles) was hard-fought and often vitriolic. The victories and defeats have done nothing to soften the rhetoric post-election. While the rhetoric itself captures our attention, we should reflect its deeper meaning. Years of pent up frustration within Degel HaTorah have now been released. And, on the other hand, Agudath Israel is fighting for the survival of its political hegemony. This is a generational transition and as such, it is hard to see how the genie can be put back in the bottle. If Degel and Agudah conclude that both can pass the threshold in the upcoming elections we may, although still an extreme scenario, see them running separately at a national level[4].

It is hard to predict what effect this will have outside of the immediate political realm, but one senior Haredi journalist I spoke to considers this campaign a disaster for the future of the Haredi community and its leadership. Ultimately, the regard in which the bulk of the Haredi communities hold their respective leaders will be the deciding factor on the future of Haredi politics. While the current political environment reflects Haredi vs Haredi, and not Haredi vs “The Rest,” the power that resides within Haredi politics will itself be dramatically diluted if there is a break between the respect Haredim hold for their leading rabbis and their political decisions.

Former People?

In contrast to the majority of Zionist parties, in which there is a high turnover of party members due to primaries or modifications to the team formed by party leaders, Haredi parties are characterized by strong conservatism. By way of example, all three of the leading Haredi politicians, Moshe Gafni, Aryeh Deri and Yaakov Litzman have served 25-30 years in the Knesset or government. As a result, the time spent, experience accrued, and relationships and public reputation that developed have made some of these Haredi political leaders inordinately powerful within the Haredi sector, and even in the general Israeli public. Most prominent of all is perhaps Deputy Minister Yaakov Litzman, a representative of the Gur Hasidic community and one of the senior Knesset members of United Torah Judaism’s Agudath Israel branch. He is considered one of the most important power brokers in Israeli politics, holding great influence far beyond the Health Ministry that he leads[5].

However, the recent elections were a colossal political defeat for Litzman, as all the political campaigns that he led, almost without exception, failed, including cities that constituted strategic goals for him in terms of their local Gur communities. His political failures included: Jerusalem (where the mayoral candidate he supported lost); Haifa (where the mayoral candidate he supported lost); Arad (where the mayoral candidate he battled against — won); and others. These failures strike Litzman at a difficult time, given internal strife in Gur itself, where several political activists are challenging Litzman’s authority and eyeing his seat in the Knesset. Perhaps more strategic than each of these losses was the reversal on the Jerusalem city council, revealing the extent to which the Lithuanians now hold the demographic upper hand.

The recent elections proved favorable for Aryeh Deri, leader of Shas, also a veteran political player[6]. Many already mourned Deri, due to Shas’s plunge in political surveys, albeit Deri himself claims that the surveys do not accurately reflect the spirit of Shas voters, who are not amply represented in the surveys and do not necessarily respond to them. In these elections, Shas representatives retained or increased power in most cities. Deri is rebranding Shas as a more authentic Haredi party, but will have to contend with the double challenge of losing the more traditional Sephardic voters on the one hand, and competing with Degel HaTorah on the other, as it may be seen by many second and third generation Sephardic Haredim as the more authentic representation of their views.

While no declarations have been made by the three veteran Haredi politicians, Shimon Breitkopf of Mishpacha predicted in his very popular column that this may the last Knesset for each of them, and hence we are closing in on a major generational handover. They will not want to leave their communities in a weak position, so I expect that they will make every effort to preserve Haredi unity, or at least delay any further break up.

The Tomorrow People

Ofer Berkovitch Haredi Campaign Team. (Neta Katz)

Much has been written regarding the cultural and religious changes characterizing the Haredi millennials. In general, a younger generation of Haredim, who are decidedly more modern or open than they were in the past, is being dubbed a variety of names, including Haredim Hadashim (New Haredim) and Haredim Yisraelim (Israeli Haredim). Those behind the changes have, on several occasions, attempted to develop political force, yet time and again, failed, with rare and only temporary success. For example, candidates of the generation of young Haredim were successful in the 2007 municipal elections under the party name “Tov.” However, this success was not to be repeated.

Instead, the recent elections featured a new trend: collaboration and integration. Many of the “New Haredim” concluded that if they cannot unite and succeed as a party, then perhaps they should at least attempt to jump on the bandwagon of established, stable parties that can stand to benefit from their support and will thus guarantee their interests.

Dr Aliza Bloch at Haredi Campaign HQ. (Aliza Bloch campaign)

The above was manifest particularly in Jerusalem, where many of them actively supported the secular candidate, Ofer Berkovitch, and could be seen at his campaign HQ. While Berkovitch ultimately lost, the support of New Haredim made the race exceedingly tight. This phenomenon was likewise expressed in Beit Shemesh, where the support that Dr. Aliza Bloch garnered from New Haredim, among others, catapulted her to success. During her campaign, Bloch maintained a Haredi campaign headquarters. It also bore fruit in Bnei Brak, where a group of young Haredim managed to get their representative, Yaakov Vider of Likud, onto the council for the first time.

These elections have also evidenced a certain deterioration in rabbinic authority. That was most striking in Beit Shemesh, where, despite the explicit directive of local rabbis, many Haredim — those who identify with the young generation of Haredim and even some with more conservative views — ignored the ruling, and supported mayoral candidate Aliza Bloch. In Jerusalem, as well, there were quiet rebellions, as many more Haredim than expected, and many more than those who identify themselves as New Haredim, voted Berkovitch, even at public voting stations, where voters received clear instructions to vote for Moshe Lion.

We should not overstate the reality of the “free-voting” New Haredim, and it is important to bear in mind that both Bloch and Berkovitch enjoyed different levels of passive and active support from (mostly Hasidic) Haredi groups, who were still following their rabbis and political leaders, even though they then voted against other Haredim. It is hard to put exact numbers on this, and further analysis is required, but it is probably less than 10% of the voting Haredi public. It is also too early to establish its sustainability.

And while this trend of new Haredi voting patterns became apparent, the exact opposite also happened, with the emergence of a “new” supreme rabbinic leader for the Lithuanian community.

Supreme Leader

The past years have marked the end of a generation replete with spiritual leaders in the Haredi sector along with the passing of a long list of revered rabbis, most notably among them, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and most recently Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, z”l. In light of the fact that Haredi spiritual leadership comes along with political power, it is only natural that the demise of the spiritual leaders of the prior generation will spark battles for inheritance. These municipal elections, without a doubt, tilted the balance.

The outcome of two such battles were determined in these elections: Shas and Degel HaTorah. In Shas, Rabbi Shalom Cohen, official successor of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, z”l, cemented his already strong position among Sephardic Haredim versus challenger Rabbi Meir Mazuz, spiritual patron of deposed Shas party leader Eli Yishai. In Degel HaTorah, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and his supporters claimed the winning position in the inheritance battle that is still taking place with Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, as Rabbi Kanievsky and his inner circle actively lead all political campaigns, with Rabbi Edelstein’s people lagging far behind.

The future will judge this “crowning” moment to be either a return to great leadership for the Haredi community or a passing episode within the trend of weakening community leaders and a splintering dynamic that follows.

Conclusion

“Man’s mind cannot grasp the causes of events in their completeness, but the desire to find the causes is implanted in man’s soul.” — War & Peace, Leo Tolstoy.

Any discussion regarding the Haredi community of recent years will include mention of the “changes” characterizing it — be they religious, cultural, economic, political, vocational, intergenerational, or other. These changes are felt above and below the surface, and they cannot be ignored. “Since the day the Temple was destroyed, prophecy was appropriated from the prophets and given to fools.” It does not, however, constitute prophecy to conclude with the following observations and analysis regarding the future:

  • The people behind the Lithuanian Degel HaTorah party will ramp up the battle to increase their strength within United Torah Judaism, even at the cost of threatening to dissolve their partnership on the national scale and running on separate ballots, and the battles will become stronger and more personal.
  • Shas will focus more on its core following — the Haredi Sephardic voters and strengthen its partnership with Degel HaTorah. There is also a possibility that the two parties will run together on a single ballot in national elections, especially if there is a concern about passing the minimum electoral threshold.
  • Yaakov Litzman’s status and seat in the Knesset continue to be questioned, and, while he has now been confirmed to carry on for the time being, the chance of him being replaced by others is steadily growing. It is quite possible that this uncertainty will affect his political decision making on the various key matters likely to arise in the coming months.
  • Young Haredim will continue integrating into existing parties on the national scale, and their prospects of securing a seat in the Knesset for the first Young Haredi MK — albeit not as members of a Haredi party — are growing. It is also likely that, as change takes place at the grassroots level, there will be more reactionary behavior from those at the edges, in an attempt to hold back any change at all.
  • Finally, the eulogies delivered upon Haredi spiritual leaders, the “Gedolei Hador,” are premature, as their authority will remain a core element within Haredi society, at least in the coming years, and perhaps even intensify under the leadership of the spiritual leaders of the new generation: Rabbi Shalom Cohen of Shas and Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky for Degel HaTorah.

Footnotes

[1] With the exception of Yachad, of former Shas leader Eli Yishai, and Etz, the party of the ultra-Haredi Litvak group Peleg, that competes with Degel HaTorah

[2] In 1988 Degel HaTorah ran their own list for Knesset for the first time, and from the on they ran on the UTJ list together with Agudath Israel

[3] The founding of Shas in 1984 predates the separation of Degel HaTorah from Agudath Israel in 1988, although Rav Shach founded the Degel newspaper in 1985

[4] This has happened once, in 1988, immediately following the founding of Degel HaTorah.

[5] Litzman holds the title of Deputy Minister although he is the de facto Minister. This anomaly is an example of the core ambivalence that defines the Haredi community’s stance to the secular state.

[6] Deri has been at the center of Israeli politics since the 1980s from the founding of Shas. He had an enforced break after being convicted on corruption charges in 1999.

About the Author
Daniel Goldman is Chairman of Gesher, the leading organisation bridging social gaps in Israeli society; he is a local activist in Beit Shemesh and Founding Partner of Goldrock Capital.
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