JERUSALEM (VINnews) — If there is one paradox which remains constant in chareidi politics, it is the lack of correlation between the growth of the chareidi communities and their representation in Israeli politics.
By all accounts, Israel’s chareidi community numbers about a million people (Bli Ayin Hara), representing about a ninth of the electorate. Moreover there are many people on the periphery of the community who support and identify with the goals and ideals of the chareidi community, including many Baalei Teshuva and more modern elements. The community’s birthrate is well over double that of the secular community and thus it would be expected that the electoral growth would be commensurate.
In reality, the chareidi parties have not grown anywhere near the level of the community’s burgeoning development. Despite the commitment of chareidi constituents to the rulings of gedolim and despite the gedolim’s unequivocal statements to vote for chareidi parties, the political representation has remained the same and even dipped in some cases.
The Shas party’s fortunes may be linked to the immense popularity of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. The party’s strength prior to his death in 2013 was around 11-12 seats but since then it has never gained more than 9 Knesset seats as voters feel less obligated to the current Shas leadership.
However Shas is now far more concerned at the growing popularity of Itamar Ben-Gvir, a right-wing politician who has excited the imagination of large sectors of chareidi youth with his uncompromising approach to Arab belligerence. Ben-Gvir courageously set up his bureau in the Shimon Hatzadik neighborhood after repeated assaults on Jews there and also made high-profile visits to Temple Mount and the Muslim quarter to emphasize that Jews will not relinquish control of these key regions. The present government’s association with Ra’am, an Arab party with links to the Muslim brotherhood, allowed Ben-Gvir to galvanize the opposition and gain considerable influence in right-wing circles.
Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef criticized Ben-Gvir for his Temple Mount visit, a move which was interpreted as part of Shas’s political concern about Ben-Gvir’s popularity. Ben-Gvir chose not to respond to the criticism, which like numerous left-wing attacks on him only served to consolidate his status and garner further support.
However Agudah, the other chareidi party in the Knesset, has more concerns than Ben-Gvir on its plate. The past few years have seen the growth of a highly vocal opposition within the Lithuanian community both to Agudah’s participation in the government and to its alleged concessions on issues of army service for yeshiva students. The Peleg, a split-off group which was formerly led by Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach zts’l, opposes voting in the Knesset and has joined the Eda Charedis in demonstrations and in ideology.
Yet besides the Peleg, Agudah’s internal problems have increased due to the forced resignation of former health minister Yaakov Litzman. Litzman was replaced by Vizhnitz member Yaakov Tessler under a rotation agreement but Gur will have a new representative in the coming Knesset. The Gerer Rebbe has chosen Yitzchak Goldknopf to represent the largest chasidic sect in Israel, but the controversial choice can only serve to further undermine Agudah’s electoral hopes.
Goldknopf has been active in the “Committee for the Sanctity of the Sabbath” and succeeded in forcing the national air carrier El Al to halt all its Saturday flights. Goldknopf also fought the chareidi-owned Shefa Shuk chain for its business association with AM:PM, a Shabbos-violating convenience store chain. In this endeavor Goldknopf was less successful but did catch the eye of the Gur leadership for his uncompromising stance on Shabbos in the public sphere.
However Goldknopf is far better known and even notorious in the chareidi public for his leadership of the kindergarten and daycare chain in Jerusalem that he inherited from his father, turning it into a prosperous nationwide chain of hundreds of early educational centers, as well as medical clinics and schools for special needs children.
Goldknopf’s draconian management style, includes alleged violations of the rights of thousands of chareidi women employed as kindergarten teachers and aides. These teachers were forced to sign agreements waiving their rights to seniority and basic employment rights, leaving them with salaries of 50% of their counterparts in other educational systems. Goldknopf systematically exploited the need of chareidi women for employment to deny them tenure and other employment benefits.
In recent years, these teachers have taken their protest to the Knesset, with little success. Even efforts to unionize under the Histadrut labor federation were unsuccessful. When some of the teachers appealed to Goldknopf himself, he refused to entertain their demands, asking one of the them, “What, you want your pay to be higher than that of the director general?”
It is thus unfortunate that the Gerer Rebbe sees Goldknopf as a worthy representative for the next Knesset. Many chareidim have responded on social media,stating that they would rather vote Likud if Goldknopf is placed on the electoral slate. Others say that he should be indicted for his exploitation of teaching staff. With the current split in Gur it is also highly unlikely that the breakaway faction will vote for Goldknopf, an appointment of the Rebbe.
Thus it is safe to assume that both Shas and Agudah will not gain electorally in a new election but how much they will lose depends both on the popularity of Ben-Gvir and the lack of popularity of Agudah’s representatives in a chareidi public increasingly unconvinced with its political leaders integrity.