Open Zion

01.21.13

Ultra-Orthodox Party Runs Against Math

United Torah Judaism, the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party, is running a very specific campaign. It's not aimed at undecided voters. No one who reads their ads is unconvinced. It's a purely turn-out-the-vote campaign. Two clear examples:

One poster reads "EUCLID" in big letters. Underneath it explains: "No, that's not the name of a medicine. It's the Greek math your child will learn instead of Mishna [i.e. Torah]." And, if that didn't scare (or amuse) you enough, in smaller letters still it says the following:

Really, what's important to us when we send our kids to cheder [religious primary school]? Education in values, good midos [virtues], fear of heaven, and to ingrain within them, from their earliest childhood [the commandment of] "And you will speak it [Torah] day and night." A government without Judaism will require its children to learn secular studies. You must guard the next. We all must. We're all Charedim. Vote.

Another poster, in the same format, bolds one word and one number: "Bus #7." The sub-heading: "Get to know it. It's the line that goes from Bnei Brak [a chareidi city] to Bak'um [army recruitment offices]". And then the fine print:

On March 1, 2013, the government of Israel will begin work. Do you know what that will be? We don't. Do you know whether it will be with you or against you? You must think we're delusional. But is this [Bus #7] impossible? Will you take responsibility? Vote.

Yep. The Haaretz headline ran: “Afraid your child will learn math? Vote United Torah Judaism.” That’s about right.

This is the first ad campaign to come from United Torah Judaism. They haven't run any ads up until now because it simply hasn't been relevant. They didn't need to. This is a party with a very specific constituency. It can therefore use very specific scare tactics with a very specific aim: to drag people to the polls. This ad won't go on TV, it likely won't show up on your Facebook wall, but it will be posted in every ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi neighborhood in Israel if UTJ has anything to do with it.

The political candidates on UTJ’s list are very deeply enmeshed in the Orthodoxy that they come from, to the point where some things are just amazing. When the last government coalition was formed Brooklyn-born and Boro Park-raised Ya’akov Litzman was offered title of Minister of Health. Though Litzman has held ministry titles before, such a thing is always controversial in the ultra-Orthodox world; holding a ministerial post implies too much involvement in the state. In other words: it’s too much tangling with God’s plan. And so this time around there is no Minister of Health in Israel. Just Yaacov Litzmandeputy Minister of Health.

UTJ’s power and voice are not insignificant. It is likely that UTJ, unlike, say Balad or Meretz, will be a part of the next governing coalition. In 2009 they won five seats (Balad and Meretz each won three). For UTJ, to gain the kind of power they want and need to dictate their agenda (a high priority right now is keeping the ultra-Orthodox out of the army), they need their constituency to turn out—in droves. Where Shas, for example, looks beyond their base of ethnically Sephardic ultra-Orthodox voters to ethnic Sephardim who are less strictly observant, United Torah Judaism does the opposite. They are extremely focused, and they know what works to energize their base. It’s worked all of Jewish history and it’s the most powerful motivator in the world: fear.