Politics from the pulpit: Synagogue election campaign preaches the Yamina gospel
Campaign notebook

Politics from the pulpit: Synagogue election campaign preaches the Yamina gospel

The right-wing party’s candidates target tens of thousands of worshipers in 21 cities across the country in ‘very significant’ part of national campaign

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Naftali Bennett speaks at a yeshiva in Ashdod, December 27, 2012. (Ariel Schalit/AP/File)
Naftali Bennett speaks at a yeshiva in Ashdod, December 27, 2012. (Ariel Schalit/AP/File)

I only found out that former justice minister and Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked would be speaking at my synagogue on a Friday night earlier this month when I checked the community email for the precise time of Shabbat a few minutes before the Day of Rest started.

“Ayelet Shaked does Shabbat in Modiin,” read the Yamina flyer attached to the email, detailing the nine appearances Shaked was set to make that night and Saturday, six of them in synagogues across the city. Mine was listed as the first.

Had I found out earlier, I might have asked the rabbi or the synagogue chairman ahead of time why Shaked was being allowed to make a campaign stop in between our Friday afternoon and evening prayers, a shift from our usual practice of not having a break between the two.

Instead — perhaps frustrated that my work was following me to my place of worship on the Jewish day of rest — I blurted the question aloud to the entire community (or at least to those around me who heard me), as the senior Yamina MK was entering for her address. “Why are we having politics in synagogue?” I asked.

The interruption was met with several tuts and shushes and a few mumbles. One congregant responded, “It’s not politics.”

Shaked apparently did not hear me, or him, and immediately launched into a purely political stump speech about why the religious Zionist community needed to support Yamina in the coming election, why only a strong Yamina would ensure a right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, and why Blue and White leader Benny Gantz was not fit to be prime minister in his stead.

Yamina leader Ayelet Shaked speaks during the electoral alliance’s campaign launch, in Ramat Gan, on August 12, 2019. (Flash90/File)

Shaked and her longtime political partner, Yamina chair Naftali Bennett, split from the religious Zionist Jewish Home party in December 2018 to form the New Right party, in a bid to appeal to relatively liberal religious nationalist voters. The two had hoped to pull votes away from both Likud and the Union of Right-Wing Parties — a faction comprising Jewish Home, the National Union and the far-right Otzma Yehudit Party — but the maneuver failed: New Right fell short of the electoral threshold in the April elections.

Ahead of September’s vote, the Yamina alliance formed, made up of New Right, Jewish Home and National Union, and gained seven seats in the national vote. For the March 2 election, the third in under a year, Shaked and Bennett had hoped to run on a separate list from Jewish Home and National Union, but ended up signing a deal to continue their partnership for another round of voting.

Shaked’s Shabbat appearances, I was later to learn, were organized by Yamina’s local branch in Modiin, and mirrored appearances by the party’s lawmakers and candidates in six other cities across the country that week (Givat Shmuel, Rosh HaAyin, Beit Shemesh, Maale Adumim, Lod, and Acre). In total, a Yamina party spokesperson told me, candidates were planning to reach synagogues in 21 cities (the above, plus Jerusalem, Kiryat Shmuel, Petah Tikva, Ashkelon, Gush Etzion, Tzfat, Beit El, Kiryat Ata, Netanya, Rehovot, Dimona, Tel Aviv, Efrat, and Eli) over the course of the four sabbaths preceding the election.

“The aim is to cover the whole country,” Yamina spokesperson Moshe Basus said, admitting that the party’s candidates were specifically “trying to get to as many synagogues as possible.” He estimated they would get to at least 30 each Shabbat, with candidates addressing more than 1,000 people each over the 25 hours — an incredible total of more than 20,000 people.

“The goal is to try and connect to the public in an unparalleled way. Field work is something that was ignored in previous campaigns and we are now going for it with everything we have,” Basus said, calling the effort to reach synagogues “a very significant part” of the entire election campaign.

“One of the lessons we’ve learned [from the previous election campaigns] is that the field is a hugely important tool that you need to know how to use properly, and this tool of visiting synagogues on Shabbat appears to be very helpful,” he said.

But the tool is not one-sided, the party says, with candidates able to use each community to learn what is important to them and sharpen campaign messaging.

“For us, it’s also a tool to hear the public, to understand where the public is at, what’s important to people. It’s also a type of focus group when you come to a synagogue and hear what the public has to say,” Basus said, likening the appearances to the “Shabatarbut” phenomenon of cultural events held on Saturdays across Israel at which politicians address non-religious audiences.

Ayelet Shaked (C), chairwoman of Israel’s Yamina party, poses for a photo while on an election campaign tour at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on August 31, 2019. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Asked if he felt it was appropriate to be targeting synagogues, the Yamina spokesperson said that the synagogue “is not only a place for prayer, it’s a place for culture, a meeting point, a place for discussion.

“Also, we are not the only ones doing it [in the religious Zionist communities]. We might be doing it the most but we are not the only ones,” he said.

Both Likud and Blue and White, the two major parties aiming to take a bite out of the religion-Zionist vote, denied that they had any sort of operation comparable to Yamina’s.

“The campaign doesn’t send MKs to shuls on Shabbat. It’s possible that specific MKs are privately invited, which is their prerogative,” a Likud spokesperson said.

Blue and White likewise said that some candidates had been specifically invited to speak at communities hosting a number of different politicians, but that there was no specific effort to reach synagogues.

Candidates from the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties regularly address synagogues on sabbaths, both parties acknowledged, but said the practice was not exclusive to election season as was part of general outreach and community engagement.

Basus stressed that each Yamina appearance was done “in a respectful way, always in coordination with the community.”

“No one is forcing anything on anyone,” he said.

Some of my fellow congregants, also apparently bad at checking their emails ahead of the sabbath, disagreed. “No one asked me. I came here to pray, not to hear a political message,” one told me.

After Shaked’s short speech, which lasted no more than five minutes, standing just aside from the podium in front of the ark, she opened up the synagogue floor for questions, briefly answering a couple of short queries on coalition math and the (unlikely) possibility of debates between the candidates.

And then she left, on to the next synagogue and the next campaign stop.

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