The Political Structure of Haredi Local Authorities and Its Influence on How They Operate

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How are elections in ultra-Orthodox municipalities different from those in non-orthodox local authorities? Are they comparable to the Arab community? A survey an analysis of the political structure of Haredi local authorities.

Bnei Brak Mayor Zeibert. Photo by Aharon Krohn/Flash90

The Political Structure of Haredi Local Authorities

Haredi society comprises a broad range of groups and sub-groups, each with its own particular ideological characteristics and subject to its own rabbinical leadership. At the same time, from a broad sociological and political perspective, three main streams can be identified that make up Haredi society: Hasidic, Lithuanian, and Sephardi. Each is represented in the Knesset and in local government by its own political party: the Hasidim by Agudat Yisrael, the Lithuanians by Degel HaTorah, and the Sephardim by Shas.

One of the main characteristics that defines Haredi society is the principle that in every area of life, Haredim follow the instructions of the senior rabbinical leadership (gdolei haTorah, “the great sages of the Torah”), a principle referred to as “da’at Torah.” This also holds true with regard to voting in elections, both national and local, and in many senses voting in local elections has become one of the most significant manifestations of abiding by da’at Torah. However, the rabbis do not act directly vis-à-vis the public on this issue, but rather via the officials in their “courts” and via the leaders of the Haredi parties, who in accordance with the Haredi worldview are required to submit to the authority of the great sages.

Another key characteristic of local elections in Haredi society is the extent of the links between electoral lists in local elections and the national parties in Haredi society, which is unlike those found in the non-Haredi public in Israel. In the past, local election lists in all sectors of Israeli society were run in coordination with the national party system, but these ties have weakened over the years: In 1955, 97.4% of council members in local authorities came from lists that were affiliated with national parties; in 1998, this proportion stood at 56%; and by 2018, it had fallen to just 34%. By contrast, in Haredi local authorities, almost all candidates in the current local elections are on lists that identify with national parties, and in particular, with the Haredi parties.

The unique character of Haredi local politics is expressed not only through local election lists that are affiliated with national parties, but also—and most prominently—in the close and hierarchical ties between the national party establishment and the council members. In other local election lists affiliated with national parties, such as Likud and Labor, the local politicians operate relatively independently, and in most cases, candidates are selected by local activists, or in close coordination with them. By contrast, Haredi local lists are essentially under the hand of the national parties. In general, it is the national leaderships of the three main Haredi parties that appoint the candidates in local lists, and occasionally even “parachute in” candidates from the outside.

Ahead of every local election, the representatives of the national parties conduct negotiations over the division of posts and powers in the various local authorities. These negotiations are unique in that they include several different local authorities in the same agreement, such that one party will receive the position of head or deputy head of a particular authority, and in return another party will be awarded the position of head of another authority. In some cases, the Haredi parties stand together in a single combined list, and in others, they put forward separate lists that cooperate with each other.


Differences Between Haredi and Arab Local Authorities

At first glance, the sectorial and community-based organization of local Haredi lists appears similar to the clan model that is widespread in Arab local government in Israel, in which voting patterns are based on family and clan affiliations, such that the local authority is controlled by the largest clans, or by coalitions of several clans working together. Consequently, Israeli public discourse often makes reference to the similarities between Arab and Haredi local authorities.

To the contrary, there is a huge difference between them: In Arab local government, the winning clans do not usually cooperate with the losing clans in any manner, but rather act according to a “winner takes all” model, and they appropriate all the resources of the authority to further their own interests. By contrast, Haredi local authorities are characterized by a model of cooperation among the different communities from the election campaign onward, and even in cases of bitterly fought elections, the winners act graciously toward the losing communities and cooperate with them. At the core of this cooperative model is the idea that the authority’s resources should be shared equally among the constituent groups, each according to its respective size.

This type of cooperation is not to be taken for granted. In 1997, Yossi Shelhav, who studied Haredi local government during its early stages of development, expressed strong concern that the sectorial and community-based model would lead to discrimination in favor of the majority groups in Haredi local authorities and neglect of the smaller groups, as often occurs in Arab local authorities. However, three main reasons can be identified for the fact that the cooperative model is the most prevalent in Haredi authorities:

  1. Solidarity. Though Haredi society is very clearly divided into different groups and sub-groups, there is a basic sense of solidarity between these communities such that from an ethical perspective, they are not interested in entirely subjugating each other, even where this might be possible.
  2. Balances between authorities. As noted above, Haredi local politics are conducted under national centralized control—unlike Arab local politics, which are organized on a local clan basis. Consequently, even when one of the groups wins the election for a particular local authority, it may find itself in a minority in another authority vis-à-vis the other groups. If a certain group discriminates against another in one location, then the latter has the option of “retaliating” in a local authority in which it holds the upper hand, something that indeed occurs on occasion. Thus, external pressures create a kind of “balance of power” among the different groups and communities, which requires them to cooperate.
  3. The national arena. The Haredi public constitutes a minority in the State of Israel, with clearly defined interests vis-à-vis majority society. Thus, the Haredi parties cooperate closely with one another in the national arena—particularly the Lithuanian and Hasidic parties, which run under a single united list in Knesset elections (United Torah Judaism), as competing separately would run the risk that one of them might fail to meet the electoral threshold. This constant need to cooperate on a national level also leads to clear boundaries that prevent extreme mistreatment of any of the groups on a local level. While the different elements of the Arab minority also sometimes cooperate in the national arena, the major differences between the national parties are ideological (rather than along family-community lines), which means that if one clan harms another’s interests, this does not lead to a serious rift at the national level.


The Disadvantages of the Haredi Political Model

While the political structure of Haredi local authorities has certain advantages, in that different communities succeed in cooperating with one another, it also suffers from several salient disadvantages:

  • Prioritization of the community over the individual. Haredi local authorities direct their activities toward their constituent communities, and thus they emphasize aspects relating to the organization of residents as communities—for example, allocations to synagogues and educational institutions—rather than aspects relating to the interaction between individual residents and the local authority administration. Furthermore, in cases of a clash of interests between the community and the individual, or even a group of individuals who are not organized formally as a community, the authority will prioritize communities.
  • Lack of broad strategy and policy. In many cases, Haredi politics treats the resources of the local authority as a pie to be divided up among the constituent communities, resulting in a lack of a broader strategy focused on the benefit of the entire public. Council members tend to concentrate on helping their own communities, and devote little attention to more general issues relating to the welfare of all the city’s inhabitants, because each community tends to maintain a narrow view that is centered solely on its own current needs.
  • Absence of an opposition. The cooperation between the parties means that in many cases, there is no opposition in the council. In democratic regimes, including in local government, the opposition has an important role in providing oversight of the ruling power and offering an ideational alternative, as well as in uncovering cases of improper administration and of corruption. The absence of an opposition, or the existence only of a weak opposition, substantially impinges on healthy oversight of the activities of the local authority.


Considerations for the 2024 Elections

Even before the 2024 elections take place, we can see a significant change underway in the Haredi local arena in these elections.

Above, we described how the various Haredi political establishments conduct negotiations ahead of elections, with the aim of agreeing on a consensus candidate. In the past, all the three main groups were able to agree on a candidate in almost every local authority. In the upcoming elections, however, it is evident that this is changing. In both Bnei Brak and Rekhasim, each of which has had a single agreed candidate in every election for decades (on a rotational basis), there will be two establishment candidates running against each other this month. Similarly, there are struggles among the establishment groups for control of the local authorities in Beitar Illit, Elad, and Immanuel.

Accordingly, while the average number of candidates for the position of authority head in Haredi local authorities over the last four elections has been 2.16, at these elections it is 3.14, even higher than the average in other Jewish local authorities, which stands at 2.98. In mixed cities as well, such as Beit Shemesh, Tzfat, and Ashdod, in which Haredim have usually acted as a single bloc in support of one of the candidates, it is noticeable that in the current elections, there is more than one candidate receiving support from establishment Haredi parties.

This internal struggle within the Haredi political establishment is increasing the strength of smaller groups that are calling for change, and is forcing the establishment itself to evolve. A good example of this is the surprising step by Shas of putting forward, for the first time ever, a candidate for head of the Bnei Brak municipality (Minister Uriel Buso), in an attempt to offer an alternative to the Ashkenazi Haredi hegemony in the city. In this case, change is evident not only in the decision to put forward a candidate, but also in the character of the election campaign Shas is running in Bnei Brak.

The establishment Haredi parties usually run campaigns directed inward at their own communities, which emphasize the instructions of their group’s rabbis on the subject of voting according to da’at Torah. However, because the Sephardi Haredim constitute less than a third of the residents of Bnei Brak, the Shas leadership understands that in order to win, it will have to appeal to the Ashkenazi Haredi public as well. The party has therefore chosen the campaign slogan “Giving the City Back to Residents,” symbolizing an anti-establishment spirit that echoes widespread criticism in the Haredi public against the established leadership, perceived as being detached from individual residents. The Shas campaign explicitly addresses the entire Haredi public (“Sephardim, Hasidim, Lithuanians, and residents”), and focuses on quality-of-life issues—such as the rat infestation that has plagued Bnei Brak, and traffic congestion—rather than community affiliation.

Some have mocked Shas for the fact that the party has played a major role in the municipal coalition in Bnei Brak for years, and is now running an anti-establishment campaign of this type; they see this as nothing more than an election campaign trick. But even if this criticism holds true, it still shows that the Haredi establishment has identified a change in sentiment among residents and in residents’ demands, and understands that it needs to adapt.