The haredi community is no stranger to politics. Agudath Israel is actually the oldest party in the Knesset, with the movement recently having celebrated its centennial (in 2012), as it meticulously maintains its unique characteristics. The continued existence of the veteran political movement, alongside its younger offshoots (the Sephardic Shas party and Lithuanian Jewry’s Degel HaTorah party), and with remarkable stability too, are indicative of an uncompromising loyalty of the haredi community to its original parties. What gives the haredi parties their stability?
The answer to that question lies in one of the biggest secrets of Israeli haredi society: the social contract between the community and its leaders. This is a basic norm of haredi hierarchy, upon which all other rationales are based. According to this unwritten contract, Election Day is a vote of confidence for the leader. On Election Day, the haredi community does not choose a political leader but a spiritual one.
The haredi parties constitute a successful attempt at bypassing the democratic system. The votes of the haredi public aren’t really those of the voters, because the votes are knowingly and deliberately given to the leaders. Or, put another way, Rav Shteinman, the leader of the Lithuanian-haredi community, votes on behalf of his entire community. His aggregate vote is worth 200,000 votes.
Voting for the haredi parties periodically confirms the unspoken agreement between individuals in the community and the leaders. The Torah giants, who receive their mandate from the public, appoint their representatives, the haredi askanim, to serve as their long arm. There is a pretense of unity between the haredi functionaries and the public, such that the functionaries are not beholden to consider the community’s sentiments; it is clear that the public’s appointing of political leaders is not contingent thereon.
That is the reason why the majority of haredim has continued to vote for the original party throughout these years. In a study I conducted with Dr. Lee Cahaner in 2012, we found that even the modern haredim who espouse Western cultural values continue to vote for haredi parties. Once you vote for a different party, you’ve effectively broken the contract between you and the community. The secret ballot voting system constitutes a profound inner test as to the communal identity of the haredi voter.
The haredi public, then, is not represented in the Knesset, since it voluntarily waived its political right to choose. The haredi Members of Knesset, who have been appointed by the leaders, represent “haredi-ness,” not necessarily the haredim. Though, generally speaking, there is congruence between the values of haredi-ness as a collective and the needs of the community itself. But this congruence is not a given; it might ignore the voice of sub-groups or the changes taking place within the community.
It is no wonder that oftentimes there is a gap between the prevailing sentiments in the haredi community and the stance taken by the party. Thus for example, while many studies show that the haredi community espouses the more right-wing views in Israeli society, it was the haredi parties that enabled the two big [left-driven] political moves in the last two decades: the Oslo Accords and the disengagement from Gaza. The voters don’t take them to task for this, because from the outset they waived their political power.
Twice in the past, when a sub-group felt that its voice was not heard, alternative parties were established. That is how the Sephardic Shas movement started, as well as the Degel HaTorah party representing Lithuanian Jewry. However the establishment of these movements did not change the norms upon which haredi politics are based. The political leader, the signatory on the other side of the social contract, has changed. Instead of giving their vote to leader A, they simply gave their vote to leader B. However in the last decade we have seen this model – a model as old as the State itself – being slowly eroded. The gap between various groups within the community (working haredim, women) and the politicos of the community is growing. And the power of the leaders is diminishing. The disconnect between the leaders and the community could lead to the unraveling of the social contract. That is because members of the community have difficulty seeing who is on the other side of this contract, who is getting their vote.
The passing of the Torah giants of the previous generation puts the social contract to another test. The community is now converging once again to assess its leaders’ reliability, at a time of gaping chasms within each of its main factions. Will this social contract remain in effect? Time will tell.
Photography: Eli Cobin