Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox demonstrators attended a United Torah Judaism election rally in Jerusalem on Sunday, where the community’s top religious and political leaders urged them to show up to vote in Tuesday’s election and blasted their secular opponents.
Media estimates said that up to 50,000 crammed the streets around the capital’s Bar Ilan junction as the party’s leadership warned their religious lifestyle was endangered by secularist politicians that one speaker reportedly compared to the biblical arch-nemesis of the Jewish people, Amalek.
Analysts have said that a low turnout nationwide is expected Tuesday, amid voter apathy in what will be the country’s second election in five months. The ultra-Orthodox community might buck that trend, however, with rabbis calling on their constituency to vote.
In a rare occurrence, two of the leading rabbis within the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox community were together on the podium — the head of the Gur Hasidic movement Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter and Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky — in a show of force that carries great weight within the community.
UJT party leader, Deputy Health Yaakov Litzman, told the crowd that there is “just one thing on the agenda: who will manage to set up a government without the ultra-Orthodox.”
The struggle, he said “is over our right to be ultra-Orthodox, to keep [religious] commandments, to lead a life of Torah and belief.”
The centrist Blue and White Party, seen as the key challenger to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tuesday’s election, and the secular Yisrael Beytenu party have both called for forming a secular coalition without the ultra-Orthodox parties.
UTJ MK Moshe Gafni reportedly compared Blue and White Party No. 2 MK Yair Lapid and Yisrael Beytenu Party leader Avigdor Liberman to the ancient biblical tribe of Amalek.
Lapid and Liberman, Gafni said, are waging a “cultural war” against the ultra-Orthodox community, Ynet reported.
The two lawmakers have both raised the ire of the ultra-Orthodox community with their campaigning.
Lapid has pushed for a tougher stance against the ultra-Orthodox parties, accusing them of “extorting” money from the government and blasting their refusal to serve in the military.
Last month, the ultra-Orthodox community decried Lapid as anti-Semitic, after he tweeted a satirical campaign video portraying senior ultra-Orthodox politicians as venal and corrupt, demanding large sums of money in exchange for pledging loyalty to Netanyahu.
Under Liberman, the secularist Yisrael Beytenu has campaigned against religious influence on public institutions and vowed to bring about a government without the ultra-Orthodox parties.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has also recently said he wants to establish a secular coalition if he wins the election.
The final polls released ahead of next week’s election indicated that Netanyahu was inching his way closer to being able to form a right-wing coalition, but still falling just short of the mark.
In the Channel 12 and 13 surveys released Friday, which under Israeli law was the last day polls were allowed to be published before the September 17 vote, Netanyahu’s Likud party and rival Blue and White were in a dead heat with 32 seats each. However, Netanyahu’s potential right-wing coalition moved up to 59 and 58 seats in the respective surveys. Sixty-one seats are needed for a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
In the Channel 13 poll, Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu was predicted to get nine seats, and eight seats in the Channel 12 poll. Though down on previous poll figures for the party, the seats could be enough to position Liberman as kingmaker after the election.
Liberman helped precipitate the upcoming elections by refusing to join a Netanyahu-led government after elections in April unless legislation to formalize exemptions to mandatory military service for seminary students was passed without changes, a demand rejected by the ultra-Orthodox.
Coming up one seat short of a majority without Yisrael Beytenu, Netanyahu pushed through a vote to dissolve the Knesset and call a snap poll, marking the first time an Israeli election failed to produce a government.