Israel: The Rise of the Ultra-Orthodox

Menachem Schneerson
Menachem Schneerson; drawing by David Levine


What people talk about in Israel seems mostly to be determined by what they saw the evening before on Israel’s only television network. Last October, just before the general elections, people were startled to see, in the center of the TV screen, a man in a long, regal, ottoman robe, a tall turban on his head, and John Belushi–style dark glasses that contrasted with his full silvery beard. He was flanked by motionless men in black, all with black beards. The man in the center started murmuring, and the other men repeated in unison what he said. This was, it turned out, an established ritual performed by the former Sephardic chief rabbi, now the spiritual head of the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party (Shas), which was to do unexpectedly well in the October elections, receiving 6 out of 120 seats in the parliament. On national television, the chief rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, was freeing his devout followers from the holy vows they had previously taken which had bound them to rabbis from rival parties so they could vote for Shas. He was cleansing his followers and cursing his enemies in religious incantation.

For me, and for other secular Israelis who had never before seen anything like this on Israeli television, the TV screen was a Wellesian time machine tuned to a remote medieval station. The producer of the broadcast, Uri Zohar, once the most popular comedian and film director in Israel, a kind of left-wing Jerry Lewis, had some years ago converted to become a born-again Jew and has since become an ultra-Orthodox rabbi. Whatever else he may now do, he is not trying to be funny.

Such religious broadcasts affected the results in the elections; so did the “charisma” of the various rabbis who appealed for votes. But their charisma was exaggerated. It does not by itself explain why the vote for the three ultra-Orthodox parties—Shas, the Aguda, and The Flag of the Torah—has doubled since the last election in 1984, giving the three over 11 percent of the vote. These religious parties got more votes because they have created formidable educational and welfare institutions during the last few years. Their political power is no accident, and the charisma that counts has become, as Max Weber put it, “routinized”: that is, the appeal of these parties derives from their religious role and activities, and not from the personality of one octogenarian rabbi or another.

The election results came as a complete surprise. None of the opinion polls had predicted the strength of the ultra-Orthodox parties. The pollsters had seen the signs of it but had dismissed them as sampling errors. “We didn’t see it because we didn’t know it,” said one of the pollsters, memorably.

The ultra-Orthodox parties together have 13 seats out of 120 in the current Knesset, compared with 6 previously. Since the two major parties, Likud and Labor, have roughly…

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