Jerusalem Mayoral Race Opens Cracks in Haredi ‘Black Wall’

A new mayor took his seat in Jerusalem this week, and the split in the once-impenetrable “black wall” of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) unity in the holy city suggests he will have to navigate carefully among competing factions.

As the votes came in on election night last month, it seemed that young, secular activist Ofer Berkovitch might achieve the nearly impossible and become Jerusalem’s next mayor, only to succumb by the end to Moshe Lion. Lion, a religiously observant accountant who moved to Jerusalem from the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim before his previous bid for mayor five years ago, is seen by many as little more than a puppet in the hands of national politicians. The fact that there was tension at all was a surprise.

In a city in which the Arab population does not vote, in which 35% of Jewish voters are ultra-Orthodox, and in which only 20% are secular, Berkovitch’s loss by a mere 3,765 votes out of more than 200,000 cast, was clear testament to the split within the city’s haredi camp. The split itself testifies to broader developments.

Significant transformations are unfolding in ultra-Orthodox society and identity. Not that there was ever unity among haredim. The “Lithuanian,” hassidic, and Sephardi streams are the contemporary heirs to the piously anti-modern forms of Judaism that crystalized in the 19th century. They have had more than their share of infighting in recent years. The current crisis, however, presents an unprecedented reality on two counts.

The first is the cavernous vacuum of leadership.

Over the last five years, the Sephardi and Lithuanian communities both lost their respective “greats.” Death is as certain as taxes, but what’s extraordinary about these departures is that the leaders were not replaced. There were attempts in both cases to declare new great rabbis, but they failed to mobilize public support and remained titular figures. The second point augments the first. Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel are becoming more open to the country’s general culture than ever. Embracing such values as autonomy, equality, economic betterment, nationalism, and feminism, they are letting go of their traditional, anti-modern positions. As resistance to modernity plays such a substantial role in haredi identity, this means that their identity is changing dramatically.

Haredim are becoming more Israeli. Becoming more Israeli, however, means becoming less ultra-Orthodox. As a fundamentalist, holistic identity, the haredi self cannot allow itself to be divided between competing narratives of value and meaning. Indeed, compartmentalizing our professional, ethnic and religious elements is a principal characteristic of a modern secular persona.

Most haredim are hanging on to their traditional identity, but a growing number aren’t, and this split is along generational lines. The further this proceeds, the greater effect it will have on Israeli society and politics. The reasons the ultra-Orthodox wield political power beyond their 10% of the population is that have acted in unison, and cut across political fault lines, neither identifying with the Left nor the Right, and thus have been able to enter into coalitions with both.

The election in Jerusalem was only the most significant sign that the long-term coordination among haredim has shattered. With the ultra-Orthodox becoming more involved in general culture, they are also becoming more identified with specific parts of it. If they identify clearly as right wing, which is generally the case, the chances they would cooperate in coalition with the left wing is diminished. Such developments will have significant consequences.

The Israeli right wing will have greater political power, but the ultra-Orthodox themselves will have less. This will go further in unraveling the borders between their communities and the general public built with government funds and legal privileges.

That in turn will accelerate the process. We will witness increasing secularization within haredi communities. They will become more democratic and egalitarian, but there will also be attempts to color the Israeli public sphere as more traditional.

The ultra-Orthodox identity crisis heralds a fundamental change in Israeli society and politics. During the municipal elections in Jerusalem, it came close to a surprising tilt of the scales. Lion may be the first to feel the impact of the haredi split. But the role that split will play in Israel’s next general elections could prove consequential.

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Tomer Persico

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