Ultra-Orthodox Political Parties in Israel—Past, Present, Future

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What is the secret behind the power of the ultra-Orthodox political parties in Israel and how has it changed over the years? The article presents an overview of the development of the ultra-Orthodox political parties in Israel from the establishment of the State as well as insights as to future developments.

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Historical Roots

The ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael (Union of Israel) movement was founded more than a century ago (in 1912) at a historic conference held in Katowice ( now in Poland) in reaction to the Zionist movement. At this meeting, Agudat Yisrael defined its goals thus: “To resolve, in the spirit of the Torah and the commandments, the questions that the Jewish people will need to grapple with on a daily basis.”  The establishment of the movement represented a major novelty, in that it succeeded in bringing together different Jewish ultra-Orthodox groups that had until then been at odds with each other, foremost among these being the Hassidim and the Lithuanian communities but also the more modern German Orthodox groups. The driving force behind this unification was the need to put up a fight against the wave of young people who were being attracted to Zionism and to other modern movements.

As a rule, relations between Agudat Yisrael and Zionism were far from cordial but as the Mandate period progressed, the level of cooperation between them grew. This was partly born of necessity, since the Jewish Agency controlled the allocation of immigration visas to Palestine, but was also a result of the terrors of the Holocaust and of the understanding by the heads of Agudat Yisrael that a Jewish state in the Land of Israel was going to become a reality. The relationship between the two movements peaked, when the Rabbi Levine, a representative of Agudat Yisrael, joined   the People’s Administration (the nascent government) and signed the Declaration of Independence.

After making sure that the interests of ultra-Orthodox Judaism were protected—including autonomy in education, the postponement of military service for men and a de facto exemption from service for women, Shabbat observance, and rabbinical control over personal status—Agudat Yisrael left the coalition in 1952 and did not return to the government for 25 years, until the 1977 “upset”   and the rise to power of the Likud and Menachem Begin.

The return of Agudat Yisrael to the coalition brought with it a rise in state support for the ultra-Orthodox sector and in religious legislation. Agudat Yisrael’s strength increased, since after many years of the domination of Israeli politics by a single party (first Mapai and then the Labor alignment), the party landscape evolved into a struggle between two main blocs, giving Agudat Yisrael (and subsequently United Torah Judaism and Shas) great political power.

Party Splits and the Birth of New Parties

During the 1980s, and as part of the natural growth of the ultra-Orthodox community, a number of political splits took place.  The first was at the municipal level, when Sephardi ultra-Orthodox voters of Agudat Yisrael, who almost never saw their candidates elected, decided to leave the party and set up an independent list for the Jerusalem city council. This list garnered great success in the 1983 Jerusalem municipal elections, as did a similar Sephardi ultra-Orthodox list in Bnei Brak. Following this success, Shas (Torah-Observant Sephardim) was founded as a national party, and—much to everyone’s surprise—won four Knesset seats in the 1984 Knesset elections

Another group that split off from Agudat Yisrael was the Lithuanian community, under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Shach. The Lithuanians also felt marginalized by the Agudat Yisrael leadership, which was mostly Hassidic. Thus, the 1988 elections saw the participation of a new Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox party, Degel HaTorah (Banner of the Torah). While it won only two seats, the party gained significant political influence.

In the 1992 elections, the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties once again  ran under  a joint list—United Torah Judaism, mostly  due to the raising of the electoral threshold. This cooperation has been maintained for the last 25 years, with the Hassidic Agudat Yisrael party having the larger number of representatives on the list. Following the impressive achievements of Degel HaTorah in the recent (October 2018) local elections, in which it proved its electoral strength, Agudat Yisrael was forced to compromise on the agreement for a joint list to run in the upcoming Knesset elections, according to which the two parties will have an equal share of representation in the Knesset and in positions in the next government.

The Rise and Fall of Shas

Over the years, the Sephardi Shas party was wildly successful. Between 1996 and 2013, it held between 10 and 12 Knesset seats (and won 17 seats in the elections after Aryeh Deri’s conviction for corruption). The secret of this success lay in its identity as a party open to a broad group of traditional voters rather than just the ultra-Orthodox community, as is the case for its older sibling Agudat Yisrael. However, in the 2015 elections, Shas dropped to “only” seven seats. This can be attributed to three main reasons: (a) the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who attracted Shas voters from diverse population groups; (b) the shift of the party to more ultra-Orthodox positions, leading to the loss of other voters; and (c) competition from the Yachad (Together) party, headed by Eli Yishai, which did not meet the electoral threshold, but which siphoned off voters who had previously supported Shas.

Recent polls indicate that it is highly doubtful that Shas will be able to maintain its current representation, and may drop to six or even four seats. It appears that the loss of traditional and national ultra-Orthodox voters has become an established fact. This situation, and concerns that Shas will not pass the electoral threshold, have brought about the “big bang” initiative to unite Shas with United Torah Judaism. However, this unification has met with opposition, mainly from those within Shas who fear losing voters who do not want to support a uniformly ultra-Orthodox party, or fear the prospect of a unified party dominated by an Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox hegemony. Thus, it does not appear likely that this unification will come about in the upcoming elections.

Ultra-Orthodox Voters for Other Parties

During the first decades of the state, there was a Zionist ultra-Orthodox party called Poalei Agudat Yisrael. This party ceased to exist at the end of the 1980s as a result of the increasingly isolationist stance of the ultra-Orthodox community, leading to the unification of the overwhelming majority of the ultra-Orthodox population under the United Torah Judaism banner.

However, recent years have seen a renewed growth in the number of ultra-Orthodox voters who are not interested in voting for ultra-Orthodox parties. This population includes more modern ultra-Orthodox Israelis, many of them holding jobs, who do not feel that the ultra-Orthodox parties represent them. Similarly, ultra-Orthodox voters with a strong opinion on foreign policy or security issues may not feel that an ultra-Orthodox party will represent those interests, but rather will confine itself to solely ultra-Orthodox issues. Examples of these voters can be found in Eli Yishai’s Yachad party, which had a strong nationalist profile and formed partnerships with a far-right party and with ultra-Orthodox Likud voters. Yachad candidates were even elected to the Bnei Brak city council in  the recent local elections. The proportion of ultra-Orthodox voters who do not vote for ultra-Orthodox parties has risen over the years, and now stands at around 17%.

On the other hand, there is an ultra-Orthodox population that does not vote in Knesset elections for ideological reasons—the Orthodox Council of Jerusalem (“Edah Haredit”). This group constitutes  around 5% of the ultra-Orthodox population in Israel. In recent years, it has been joined by the Jerusalem Faction (“Peleg Yerushalmi”), comprising about 6.5% of the total ultra-Orthodox population--which broke away from the Lithuanian community. At the last elections, as is the case in the upcoming elections, this group’s rabbinical leadership called on its members not to vote. This is one of the reasons why United Torah Judaism won only six seats last time around, down from seven seats in the previous elections.

What the Future Holds

Many political pundits in Israel are puzzled by the relatively stable level of electoral representation enjoyed by United Torah Judaism, despite the rapid demographic growth of the ultra-Orthodox population. In order to explain this phenomenon, we should note that United Torah Judaism won six seats at the 2015 elections, compared with four seats at the 1992 elections, representing a not inconsiderable rise of 50%. Furthermore, several developments slowed the rate of growth of United Torah Judaism: (a) the immigration to Israel of close to one million voters from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s and early 2000s; (b) the rise in the number of ultra-Orthodox voters for non-ultra-Orthodox parties; and (c) the boycott of the last elections by Jerusalem Faction supporters. It should also be noted that it can take some time for demographic changes to be reflected in election results, because in each election only three or four new voting year-groups are added to the electoral cohorts.

According to a calculation made at the Israel Democracy Institute, which takes into account both the growth rate of the ultra-Orthodox population as compared with that of the rest of the population and ultra-Orthodox voter turnout, the representation of United Torah Judaism is set to increase by up to one Knesset seat every four years, reaching 11 seats by the end of 2034. However, should we see a continuation of the trend in which potential United Torah Judaism voters leave the party, or a continued decline in voter turnout, then United Torah Judaism will not realize that potential and will reach around nine seats. And, even if the scenario of Shas being supported only by ultra-Orthodox voters and having just five seats does indeed come to pass, it too is expected to rise to as many as seven seats in another 15 years. Thus the total representation of ultra-Orthodox parties in 2034 might well be 18 seats, similar to the number of seats t held between 1999 and 2013.