In Israel and America, Haredi Jews Are Starting To Vote Like Everyone Else

Ultra-Orthodox Jews no longer vote in blocs and are now enthusiastic participants in national ideological movements. They may rue the change.

Haredi voters on April 9, 2019 in the Israeli city of Bnei Brak. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images.

Haredi voters on April 9, 2019 in the Israeli city of Bnei Brak. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images.

Eli Spitzer
COLUMN
Nov. 21 2022
About Eli

Eli Spitzer is a Mosaic columnist and the headmaster of a hasidic boys’ school in London. He blogs and hosts a podcast at elispitzer.com.

Between the two of them, Israel and America contain over 80 percent of the world’s Jewish population, and when the two countries both go to the polls, one might say without too much exaggeration that so do the Jewish people. Following the elections for the 25th Knesset in Israel, and the midterms in America, Jews across the political and religious spectrum are looking back on their defeats and victories—and perhaps none more so than the Ḥaredim.

In Israel, the Ḥaredim are celebrating an electoral triumph. Yahadut ha-Torah (in English, United Torah Judaism), the ḥaredi umbrella party, belied widespread predictions that it would hemorrhage supporters to rival parties and won seven seats. Even more importantly for them, the right-wing parties as a whole won a strong majority, breaking three years of deadlock and allowing Ḥaredim once again to occupy key ministerial positions for the next four years under the leadership of their indulgent patron Benjamin Netanyahu.

In America, by contrast, Ḥaredim in their New York stronghold are looking back on an election that promised much but delivered little. Enraged by threats to the independence of yeshivas, by perceived bullying by Democratic officials during lockdown, and by their easygoing attitude towards street crime, Ḥaredim took the unprecedented decision to do battle with the incumbent governor, throwing their weight behind the insurgent campaign of the Republican Lee Zeldin. Ḥaredi centers like Boro Park went to Zeldin by 90 percent or more. In the event, however, the incumbent Kathy Hochul won with a comfortable margin. (Only two ḥaredi leaders bucked the community trend and endorsed Hochul: Rabbi Dovid Twerski, the leader of the Skver ḥasidic sect, and Rabbi Aron Teitelbaum, leader of one half of the powerful Satmar movement.)

While Ḥaredim in Israel are celebrating and those in New York are licking their wounds, what unites these two elections is that they both mark an important milestone in a decades-long transition in how Ḥaredim vote. Simply put, where once they voted as a non-partisan sectional bloc, now they’re becoming enthusiastic participants in national ideological movements.

 

The history of ḥaredi participation in the Israeli political system started with the basic assumption of nearly all ḥaredi leaders that the state of Israel is a fundamentally illegitimate betrayal of 2,000 years of Jewish aspiration for divine redemption. The more radical of them concluded that this meant participation in electoral politics was forbidden. The majority of them, however, took the view that participation in Israeli elections was a necessary, if less than ideal, duty in order to protect the community by securing educational independence and exemptions from army service, and blocking any laws infringing on their own religious freedom.

Since those early days, ḥaredi political leaders have proved savvy operators, taking advantage of the opportunities afforded to them by Israel’s system of proportional representation and government by coalition. At the same time, until very recently, they maintained the position that they were neutral on the ideological disputes between the left-wing and right-wing Zionist factions with whom they had no choice but to work to secure their own interests. As the decades rolled on, Ḥaredim leaned more towards the right, partly because they found that they gained more from this alliance, and partly because the left was perceived as more aggressively secular. However, ḥaredi leaders were keen to emphasise that they were not themselves a part of the right. None other than the founder of the Degel ha-Torah party, for example, Rabbi Elazar Shach was a fierce critic of territorial maximalism and settlements in the West Bank, which he believed were a dangerous provocation to the international community.

Such a world now seems a million miles away. It is now taken for granted that the ḥaredi parties function as electoral adjuncts of the Likud. Benjamin Netanyahu even made an election pit-stop in Bnei Brak to encourage Ḥaredim to vote, not for his own Likud party, but for the ḥaredi UTJ, which in Knesset coalition terms amounts to the same thing. For their own part, rank-and-file Ḥaredim identify themselves as belonging to a larger camp, known as the Gush ha-Yamin or the “right-wing bloc,” unified by pride in their Jewish identity and their belief that the state must take a firmer hand against Arab terrorists. Ḥaredi political leaders have tried but failed to arrest this trend. Degel ha-Torah’s political head, Moshe Gafni, has, for instance, repeatedly and to no avail expressed his view that he is closer to the left on national-security questions. Far more popular among ordinary Ḥaredim than Gafni or any other ḥaredi politician is Itamar Ben-Gvir, the Kahanist who has attained rock-star status in ḥaredi society by being the most unapologetically right-wing politician on the national stage.

In New York, the ḥaredi approach to politics was also originally nonpartisan, though not because of an ideological opposition to the American political system. Instead, the ḥaredi leaders who arrived from Europe in the mid-20th century had an acute sense of being a minority in a foreign land with neither the ability, nor the responsibility, to determine how that society managed itself. Such ḥaredi leaders as Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum focused on carving out a niche for the community, accepting the political realities presented to them, and looking for ways to turn them to the community’s own advantage. In New York, this meant bloc voting in Democratic primary elections in return for concrete promises that politicians had the ability to deliver on. Ḥaredim—with a few exceptions such as Rabbi Avigdor Miller—did not have opinions on issues like the civil-rights movement, the Vietnam War or Roe v. Wade. Rather, they had positions on what proportion of a new public-housing development should be allocated for ḥaredi-sized families, and they gave their votes to whichever politician delivered the most, regardless of how conservative, or, more frequently, how liberal they were.

Like in Israel, however, Ḥaredim in New York have gradually taken more interest in political issues beyond their own community’s material interests. This broke out spectacularly in the unexpected, and to many observers incomprehensible, enthusiasm for Donald Trump, with ḥaredi neighbourhoods turning strongly red in both the 2016 and 2020 elections. The ḥaredi sense of affinity with the Republican party has intensified as Democrats have increasingly become associated with policies that are seen as directly affecting the ḥaredi community, most notably being soft on crime, implementing lockdowns, and threatening ḥaredi educational independence.

The assimilation of both Israeli and American Ḥaredim into one side of a polarized national political culture has happened in tandem for many of the same reasons. Chief among them is the development of a distinctively ḥaredi social-media ecosystem, mainly on WhatsApp, which offers younger Ḥaredim vastly expanded access to news from beyond their own community and the ability to discuss and form a consensus about it. There are also interesting parallels between the grassroots popularity of Donald Trump and Itamar Ben-Gvir, two uncouth and somewhat overweight politicians who have earned popularity across a broad cross-section of ḥaredi subcultures through their anti-establishment blunt speaking and their ability to convey in a non-ideological way a deep impression of being on the ḥaredi team.

To many outside pundits, this integration of Ḥaredim into the American and Israeli right wing is a dangerous development, indicating a radicalization of the formerly peaceable and benignly passive ultra-Orthodox Jew. Many ḥaredi leaders have their own quite different reasons to be concerned, none more so than Rabbi Aron Teitelbaum. Not content with being one of only two ḥaredi leaders to endorse Kathy Hochul, Rabbi Teitelbaum launched a blistering post-election attack on the Trumpisten whose infiltration of the ḥaredi community he denounced as a “painful” and pernicious phenomenon that has twisted the minds of many.

The small club of politically liberal ḥaredi Jews in their strongholds of Twitter and Facebook seized on Rabbi Teitelbaum’s speech as a vindication of their warnings about ḥaredi radicalization. A little reflection would indicate that it’s unlikely Rabbi Teitelbaum, whose social values would have been considered oddly reactionary in the America of 1922, let alone 2022, would be concerned about Ḥaredim becoming too right wing. Instead, those in the ḥaredi establishment resisting the trend towards integration in right-wing politics have very different and valid concerns, though there are significant differences between Israel and America about how these are likely to play out.

 

In Israel, the main concern of ḥaredi leaders has been that Ḥaredim animated by support for the right-wing camp might decide that a non-ḥaredi political party is a better vehicle for their nationalist values. In the previous round of elections, Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party took 10 percent of the vote in the exclusively ḥaredi settlement of Beitar Illit, seemingly portending a future where Ḥaredim voted not by identity but by ideology—and dooming the ḥaredi political establishment that has built itself on their reliable support. The political campaigns of UTJ have, accordingly, taken on an increasingly hysterical tone, emphasizing the alleged halakhic prohibition of voting for a non-ḥaredi party. In this election, boundaries of taste and—some would argue—religious decency have been crossed, as campaigners have infused the act of voting for the right party with supreme religious significance, even drawing upon verses from Elijah’s confrontation with the priests of Baal. In the elections last month, this fear (or, for others, hope) did not materialise. UTJ increased its votes by 30,000 from the previous election, and the popularity of Ben-Gvir among ordinary Ḥaredim did not lead most of them into voting for him. They judged, correctly as it turned out, that they could leave it to other sectors to vote for Ben-Gvir, while they ensured their own communal interests were protected by voting for their sectional party.

Though their electoral bottom-line is safe for now, political developments in Israel pose a more insidious and far-reaching threat to ḥaredi demographic and cultural continuity that go far beyond which party Ḥaredim choose at the ballot box. In America, ḥaredi separatism primarily means separation from the Gentile population and Ḥaredim put relatively little thought into how to distinguish themselves from other Jews. In Israel, Ḥaredim have forged their path by erecting carefully constructed barriers between themselves and other Jewish populations both secular, and, perhaps even more importantly, religious. The integration of Ḥaredim into a broader right-wing Israeli culture containing numerous different shades and levels of religious observance creates an unprecedented grey area in which young Ḥaredim can experiment with their identity without making the kind of bridge-burning decisions few are willing to make. Whether or not they vote for him, the fact that Ḥaredim can turn up at a rally for Ben-Gvir and feel totally at home presents an entirely new kind of challenge that ḥaredi leaders will have to develop new strategies to cope with.

In America, by contrast, while Rabbi Aron Teitelbaum’s antagonism to the “Trumpisten” is partly motivated by a distaste for excessive interest in goyish pursuits—and a concern about the connection between political engagement and social-media use—there is little danger of the boundaries between Ḥasidim and Red State America becoming blurred in the kind of way that could lead to assimilation like in Israel. Instead, the danger is much more immediate: the unraveling of the politically favorable environment New York ḥaredi leaders have spent decades carefully creating.

Many New York Ḥaredim, trying to draw some solace after the Republican defeat, argue that they sent a message expressing their displeasure with New York State’s political elite. Indeed, they did, but, as Rabbi Aron Teitelbaum pointed out in his speech, what happens when that elite decides to send a message back? It might feel good to turn up en masse at the polls and shake your fist at the liberal establishment, but, when you wake up in the morning, that same liberal establishment controls nearly every center of financial and cultural power in America, and, in New York, almost all of the political offices too.

Rabbi Teitelbaum hopes that by having endorsed Hochul he has preserved a vital line of communication between the ḥaredi community and the Governor’s office, but it may not be enough. Those who have cheered a ḥaredi rebellion against New York’s Democratic party have to reckon with the implications of their own position: if the left are as bad as they say, then it’s not a good idea to put yourself in their firing line. Successful reactionary social movements in the modern era, such as the Amish, have built their strategy on appearing harmless, and not attracting the eye of Sauron through acts of defiance, or anything that could indicate they might be a threat. Until recently, Ḥaredim, who have built their citadel right in the heart of global liberalism, were conscious not to poke the bear.

It may already be too late to stop that. Ḥaredi enthusiasm for Zeldin was driven, by all accounts, by fury at the exposé of ḥasidic yeshivas in the New York Times. But was this exposé itself, which could easily have been published at any time in the past 70 years, an act of revenge for the ḥaredi community’s public embrace of Trump and demonstrations against COVID lockdowns? A few more iterations of this cycle and the political climate for Ḥaredim could become very inhospitable indeed, and it is unlikely the conservative movement will be any more successful in coming to their aid than they have been about anything else in the past 70 years of relentless liberal progress. Ḥaredim may, sooner rather than later, come to rue the day they let political feelings get in the way of business.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

More about: Haredim, Israel & Zionism, Jewish World, Ultra-Orthodox