For Israel’s two main ultra-Orthodox parties, the Shas and the United Torah Judaism (UTJ), this week’s election was always going to determine the role religion plays in the state. Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition, the Blue and White Party, have been flirting with these potential coalition parties since the last vote in April. The ultra-Orthodox parties have also been part of the government for all but five years since the year 2000.
These parties have succeeded in exempting ultra-Orthodox young men from military service if they are in full-time religious study. They have fought plans to run public transport on Shabbat, the Jewish holy day, and scuppered a compromise over the Western Wall that would allow liberal Jews to organise mixed-gender prayer sessions. It was a secular nationalist party that blocked Netanyahu from forming a minority government after Israel’s last election in April over the issue of ultra-Orthodox military service and plunged the nation into this week’s second vote.
Although they have a phobia of modern technology due to fears that it will corrupt youthful minds with pornography and secularism, the Shas and the UTJ have developed advanced political machinery and keep detailed records of their voters. Shmuel Papenhaim, a Haredi rabbi and former newspaper editor, told The Daily Telegraph that they are ‘very organised.’ To ensure that they continue to dominate future coalition governments, they must proceed with embracing modern technology for one simple reason: the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population is growing fast.
They currently make up only 12 per cent of Israel’s population, but Eli Berman of the Quarterly Journal of Economics estimates there are 1.5-1.8 million Haredi Jews throughout the globe. She predicts a high birth rate and an absence of interfaith marriage will ensure their numbers continue to grow. Israeli rabbis tell congregations it is their religious duty to vote for Haredi politicians who will secure their place in the afterlife.
Therefore, voter turnout is high among this group. During April’s election, the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Modiin Illit witnessed a turnout of 85 per cent when the national rate was only 68 per cent. Technology is crucial to ensuring the Shas and the UTJ can mobilise their voters.
This is why the UTJ created a Facebook account. They have used their page to encourage their voters to join the UTJ’s WhatsApp group which enabled voters to organise transport for them to reach their nearest polling station at this week’s election. The group also ensured members have ID cards ready to vote. The UTJ also share videos of the Torah Rabbi Haim Kanevsky explaining why it is crucial to vote.
Many of the party’s videos are widely circulated. The New York Times reports that the UTJ’s video clip of one of Kanevsky’s disciples asking him how to communicate with voters who support parties that disregard the Torah’s laws went viral. Israel Cohen, a political analyst for the ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Berama, said that the mainstream parties want to appeal to Haredi voters like Omer Yankelevich, an ultra-Orthodox Jew who joined the Blue and White Party. This shows the two main parties still believe the Haredi vote matters.
The Shas also use Telegram to connect with its voters from remote locations and coordinate groups of roughly 200,000 members. Israeli firm Check Point Software Technologies warned that hackers can use this technology to break into WhatsApp and Telegram accounts, but this has not prevented the Haredi parties from continuing to use them effectively.
Social media is vital in ensuring the UTJ and the Shas continue to mobilise their voter base and guarantee that these parties maintain a presence in Israeli politics. Although the Haredi population fears modern technology, it helps them record accurate voting figures and helped them engage with their younger electors during this week’s election. For these reasons alone, the ultra-Orthodox community remains a substantial force in Israeli politics, no matter which mainstream party wins the most seats in any election.