Jerusalem Mayoral Race Opens First Cracks in Haredi ‘Black Wall’
First published by the Jerusalem Post
A new Mayor has taken his seat in Jerusalem, but the split in the once-impenetrable “Black Wall” of Haredi unity in the Holy City suggests he will have to navigate carefully among competing factions.
As the votes came in on election night last month, it seemed that young, secular activist Ofer Berkovitch might achieve the nearly impossible and become Jerusalem’s next mayor, only to succumb by the end to Moshe Lion, a religiously observant accountant who moved to Jerusalem from the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim before his previous bid for mayor five years ago, and who is seen by many as little more than a puppet in the hands of national politicians.
The fact that there was tension at all was a surprise. In a city in which the Arab population does not vote, in which 35 percent of Jewish voters are ultra-Orthodox, and in which only 20 percent are secular, Berkovitch’s loss by a mere 3,765 votes out of more than 200,000 cast, was clear testament to the split within the city’s ultra-Orthodox camp.
The split itself testifies to broader developments. Significant transformations are unfolding in ultra-Orthodox society and identity. Not that there was ever unity among ultra-Orthodox Jews. The “Lithuanian,” Hassidic, and Sephardic streams are the contemporary heirs to the piously anti-modern form of Judaism that crystalized in the 19th century. They have had more than their share of infighting in recent years. The current crisis, however, presents an unprecedented reality on two counts.
The first is the cavernous vacuum of leadership. Over the last five years, the Sephardic and Lithuanian communities both lost their respective “Greats.” Death is as certain as taxes, but what’s extraordinary about these departures is that the leaders were not replaced. There were attempts in both cases to declare new Great Rabbis, but they failed to mobilize public support and remained titular figures.
The second point augments the first. Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel are becoming more open to the country’s general culture than ever. Embracing such values as autonomy, equality, economic betterment, nationalism, and feminism, they are letting go of their traditional, anti-modern positions. As resistance to modernity plays such a substantial role in ultra-Orthodox identity, this means that their identity is changing dramatically.
The ultra-Orthodox are becoming more Israeli. Becoming more Israeli, however, means becoming less ultra-Orthodox. As a fundamentalist, holistic identity, the Haredi self cannot allow itself to be divided between competing narratives of value and meaning. Indeed, compartmentalizing our professional, ethnic, and religious elements is a principal characteristic of a modern secular persona.
Most Haredi Jews are hanging on to their traditional identity, but a growing number aren’t, and this split is along generational lines. The farther this proceeds, the greater effect it will have on Israeli society and politics. The reasons the ultra-Orthodox wield political power beyond their 10 percent of Israelis, is that have acted in unison, and cut across political fault lines, neither identifying with the Left nor the Right, and thus being able to enter into coalitions with both.
The election in Jerusalem was the only the most significant sign that the long-term coordination among Haredim has shattered. With the ultra-Orthodox becoming more involved in general culture, they are also becoming more identified with specific parts of it. If they identify clearly as right-wing, which is generally the case, the chances they would cooperate in coalition with the Left is diminished.
Such developments will have significant consequences. The Israeli right-wing will have greater political power, but the ultra-Orthodox themselves will have less. This will go further in unraveling the borders between their communities and the general public built with government funds and legal privileges. That in turn will accelerate the process. We will witness increasing secularization within Haredi communities; they will become more democratic and egalitarian, but there will also be attempts to color the Israeli public sphere as more traditional.
The ultra-Orthodox identity crisis heralds a fundamental change in Israeli society and politics. During the municipal elections in Jerusalem, it came close to a surprising tilt of the scales. Lion may be the first to feel the impact of the Haredi split, but the role it will play in the next general elections in Israel could prove consequential.