On the fence outside a Har Nof polling booth, just a few hundred meters from the home of the Shas party’s late spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the eye-catching yellow of Shas’s campaign posters and the deep green of United Torah Judaism’s posters were in competition with the new kid on the block — the dark blue of Religious Zionism.
The ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, neighborhood in northwestern Jerusalem is traditionally split between Sephardi voters loyal to Shas and Ashkenazi adherents of UTJ, which they often refer to simply as Gimmel, for the Hebrew letter on the slate’s ballot slips.
Over 12,000 polling stations opened across the country on Tuesday morning to allow around 6.8 million eligible Israeli voters to cast their ballots, as the nation went to the polls for the fifth time in under four years.
One resident of Har Nof, who identified only as Zik, explained that since the death in March of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the most powerful rabbi in the non-Hasidic Haredi community, “people feel they don’t have a rabbi who tells them what to do, and therefore might change their vote.”
He added that most of these voters were being pulled to the far-right Religious Zionism party, led by Bezalel Smotrich and featuring the controversial but increasingly popular Itamar Ben Gvir, a self-described disciple of extremist rabbi and former MK Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned and declared a terror group in both Israel and the US. Like the late Kahane, Ben Gvir has been convicted on multiple terror charges, though he also insists he has moderated in recent years and does not hold to the same beliefs as the Kach founder.
Ephraim Laniardo, who said he has previously voted for both Shas and UTJ, told The Times of Israel he voted for Religious Zionism on Tuesday because “people see there is power there. What they say they’ll do, they do. No ifs or buts… it’s proven through actions.”
Like much of the Haredi public, Laniardo does not consider himself a Zionist, despite voting for a party that touts its Zionism in its name. “The people believe in the state, and they want to change it from within, to influence the legal system and security,” he said, adding that the Jewish character of the state is a higher priority to his community than democratic values.
A nearby billboard — the medium plays an outsize role in communicating within a society where internet access is strictly controlled — featured a picture of the late Rabbi Yosef with the words “I’m begging you!” as well as the question “Who could possibly withstand the tears of our rabbi?”
Another sign, in Yiddish, showed a picture of a leader of the Vizhnitz Hasidic sect, alongside a plea to vote not for the “glory of leaders” but “for the glory of heaven.”
Despite the signs of political change in Haredi society, most remain staunchly committed to the parties they have always voted for.
Asked who they were voting for, one family, in unison, proudly exclaimed “Gimmel!” with the mother, who asked to remain anonymous, adding that “nothing has changed” to sway their vote. “Only Gimmel,” she reaffirmed.
Another voter, who gave his name only as Yaakov and was dressed in traditional Haredi garb, said he had flown in from the United States especially to vote for the first time in 40 years.
“They’re trying to take away Judaism here — it can’t happen. I voted for the right-wing bloc, with God’s help,” he said. “The right-wing bloc is for God. Everyone needs to vote for God. That’s the job of all Jews, whether they’re religious or just traditional.”