Over the years, the Knesset factions representing the ultra-Orthodox sector have often held the balance of power between the right and the left, and have known how to leverage this status to further their constituents’ interests. They have obtained funding for their educational institutions (despite the limited time those schools devote to the core curriculum), lavish budgets for yeshiva students, laws that protect them from conscription into military service, and religious legislation relating to personal status and Shabbat.
In the outgoing Knesset, where these parties held 13 of the 120 seats, they obtained an increase in the allocations to the ultra-Orthodox sector and thwarted the enactment of a new conscription law backed by the Defense Ministry (which served as the pretext for the impending elections). For this they won great credit from most of the ultra-Orthodox, but not from all of them.
There is a growing trend among the ultra-Orthodox sector to find employment and acquire higher education, despite the lack of adequate support for these developments by its political leadership. The ultra-Orthodox political parties, perceived as being mainly concerned for full-time Torah students and their families, are losing the allegiance of the more moderate flank. At the start of this century, two-thirds of Shas party voters were not ultra-Orthodox; by the last election the figure was only one-third, and this decline is expected to continue.
Even ultra-Orthodox voters themselves are now more inclined to cast their ballot for non–ultra-Orthodox parties. In 2006, only ten percent of them did so, but current estimates are that this year the figure will be double that, and reach 20%. Most of those in this category will vote for the Likud.
Related blog post: Integrating the ultra-Orthodox
For many years the ultra-Orthodox were perceived as “captive voters” who would always comply with their rabbis’ instructions to cast their ballot for ultra-Orthodox parties. In today’s new reality such directives are no longer enough. More and more ultra-Orthodox voters, especially those of the younger generation, are more open-minded on this subject and want the ultra-Orthodox parties to consider not only their interests and positions on social issues such as employment, but on political and security issues as well.
Shas has already started to accommodate this change by taking a strong right-wing stance on security matters in the hope of preventing the drifting of its voters to Likud. Even United Torah Judaism took the astonishing step of opening a Facebook page.
These actions may work in the short-term, because ultra-Orthodox voters still feel a strong sentimental attachment to their sectoral parties. In the long run, however, leaders of UTJ and Shas will have to drastically revise their messages if they want to hold on to most ultra-Orthodox voters, and will have to start addressing the issues of employment and higher education for the ultra-Orthodox.
Another vital change is greater attention to political, security, economic and social issues, and not exclusively through the lens of their ramifications for the ultra-Orthodox sector. The younger generation of ultra-Orthodox society are more concerned about their socioeconomic future and feel more Israeli. If the parties do not make the necessary adjustments, an increasing number of ultra-Orthodox voters will look for a new political home.