Elections In Israel

01.22.13

Winning The Ultra-Orthodox Vote

Israel’s exit polls are in, with some noteworthy results for the country’s ultra-Orthodox political parties. Channel 2 has Shas at 12 Knesset seats and shows United Torah Judaism with a mere six. Even the leaders of UTJ, who ran an election campaign vilifying the study of math, can probably bring themselves to put two and two together and figure out what these numbers mean: Shas was exactly twice as successful as them, despite their own unprecedented efforts to get their supporters to the polls.

Yet you’ve got to hand it to UTJ: Up until the last minute, they were really pulling out all the stops. Last night, with hours to spare until the elections, UTJ went door to door, slipping fake IDF draft orders into the mailboxes of tens of thousands of haredi families. The fake orders read: “Do you want to get the real thing? Don’t vote.”

But while UTJ was busy exploiting its constituents’ fear of army service to get them to the polls, Shas took a different approach—more carrot than stick. Catering to its religiously observant and often mystically oriented Mizrachi constituents, the party handed out religious amulets and offered blessings in an attempt to win more votes. The tactic might have been charming in an old-timey sort of way had it not been so, well, illegal. It resulted in Shas being fined NIS 37,000 (nearly $10,000) after Justice Rubinstein ruled that it was “a clear violation of an order the essence of which was to outlaw the use of (religious) blessings in election propaganda." Legal consequences notwithstanding, Shas had the right idea. They stuck to what their party has always done best—appeal to the traditionalism of their voters—and were rewarded for it again today.

UTJ tried another, even more surprising tactic in the run-up to elections: Despite their reputation as the haredi Ashkenazi party, they decided to go after haredi Mizrachi voters. Attempting to steal votes from Shas, they got Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a popular figure in the Mizrachi community, to publish a letter calling on Mizrachim to vote for UTJ. This was a radical and ultimately ineffective move, and frankly, UTJ should have known better. Shas enjoys one of the highest loyalty rates of any political party in Israel. If you suggested to my Mizrachi relatives that they vote for any party other than Shas, they’d laugh in your face. (Trust me—I’ve tried.) And if you suggested that they vote for UTJ, the party of the Ashkenazim, they’d laugh even harder.

Besides, Shas was busy mounting a parallel attack, with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef urging Ashkenazim to support his party at the polls. "It's not an issue of Sephardic and Ashkenazi; we all have the same Torah,” he said. “We will all go and vote for Shas, which will make Judaism stronger. This movement was founded to make Judaism stronger." Which would be nice, if it were true. But Shas was founded to champion the interests of Mizrachi Jews, not Judaism writ large, and historically the party has done just that. The rabbi’s sudden appeal to Ashkenazim, then, was transparently opportunistic—a fact that was surely not lost on Ashkenazi voters.

Still, Shas has given haredi Ashkenazim good reasons to support that party—reasons that have nothing to do with ethnic affiliation. The party’s focus on social issues, and specifically its work on housing policies, has benefitted both Mizrachi and Ashkenazi haredim in very concrete ways—a record Yosef was quick to capitalize on. "Ashkenazi brothers," he said, "many of you got apartments from the Housing Ministry when it was in Shas's hands—do your best to vote and convince others to vote."

In a country where housing is crushingly unaffordable—particularly for the haredi sector, where poverty is rampant—this record carries a lot of weight. Promises of concrete social change, coupled with positive incentives—rather than scare tactics—are far more effective at swaying Israel’s ultra-Orthodox voters. Over the years, Shas has clearly learned this lesson. Better luck next time, UTJ.